map Kleopatra

by Karen Essex

Published in Issue No. 21 ~ February, 1999

This excerpt is from a novel-in-progress about the young life of Kleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, who lived from 70 – 30 B.C.E. (the “K” is from the original Greek.) While there is no historical record of Kleopatra being initiated into the Mysteries of Dionysus, we do know that her family was devout in its worship of the god and that she herself wore the ring of the Bacchante. Kleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, in the tradition of his ancestors, claimed direct descent from Dionysus and officially added “The New Dionysus” to his long list of titles. The sexual coupling described herewith did occur in religious ceremonies and was recorded by many ancient historians, including Herodotus.

Kleopatra was taking a chance with her father’s good will, but she believed it worth the risk. Charmion was in on it, in on one of her schemes for the first time. Charmion, the princess’ governess, had been through the rites years before and did not approve of one so young participating. But Kleopatra reasoned that it was better for her to enter into the Mysteries now, while she was only thirteen and her time had not yet come, when the coupling would cause no child to be born. It would not do for a future queen to have a child sired by a masked Bacchante undoubtedly not of royal blood. The family dynasty did not need more bastards, and unlike when a man sired them, a woman doing such a thing was met with inevitable disgrace.

“There is never any cause to fear impregnation if one is careful. I will give you a small device, to insert, to protect you from such a thing. You know about this, Kleopatra. Why do you use such faulty reasoning with me?” argued Charmion.

“I am myself deified, and the daughter of the living god on earth. I do not believe you should stop me,” said Kleopatra. A different approach. She spoke with complete assurance but held her breath. Charmion rarely fell for intimidation tactics. Yet she sensed the woman’s vacillation. Charmion welcomed anything that would closer align the princess with the gods, but she feared that she was too young to participate in the frenzied ritual and the random coupling that followed.

“Then why are we not asking the permission of the king?” Charmion asked.

“The king fears for my safety, that is all. He would heartily approve of the journey to religious enlightenment. Besides, no one may be initiated after the age of twenty.”

“That is seven years away.” Charmion’s eyes narrowed. “I know why you are doing this thing.”

“I am doing this thing because I cannot do it in Alexandria. There I am a princess, and I represent the goddess Isis and such a ceremony would be fraught with meaning. Here in Ephesus, I may remain anonymous and demonstrate my devotion to the god.”

Kleopatra finished her speech, thoroughly pleased with the reasoning and delivery. The truth, however, was closer to what Charmion guessed: the women of Ephesus were enthusiastic devotees of Dionysus, and the only time they captured Kleopatra’s imagination was when they spoke in furtive tones of the mad Bacchanalian rites. Normally, they were very dull. When she was made to, she kept company with the Greek women in the home in which Kleopatra’s family stayed while the women quietly attended to their chores. Spinning. Spinning. Spinning. Supervising the kitchens. Spinning again. Adorning themselves. Taking exercise. The isolated lives of the Greek female, away from men, from the city, from the pulse of the Greek marketplace, bored her to distraction. But when the talk turned to the god and to the Mysteries, their voices quickened, neck muscles quivering, hands fluttering like leaves in the crosswinds. With eyes wide, the women would look over their shoulders to see if husbands – lords, masters, and interlopers – lurked about, listening to the secret ways to worship the god. For it seemed that once men were older, once they were given the key to enter the wider world, they let go of their devotion to the god Dionysus, and it was left to the women to serve him. King Ptolemy XII Auletes was an exception. But he was not simply the god’s keenest advocate; he was the god. And, being more histrionic than most members of his sex and a musician too, he was more inclined than most to serve Dionysus.

Now his daughter had discovered the wellspring of his faith. She observed the excitement in the women, and she wished to know the cause of the stimulation. And she wished to participate in the anonymous coupling that followed. She was weary of her own ignorance of that mystery. She was young, but was she not precocious in all other aspects of life? What is so special about the Mysteries, she asked one of the women as she watched her busy fingers at the loom. The woman stopped what she was doing. “Child,” she mouthed through rounded lips, “It is the essence of life.”

When the time came, Kleopatra loosened her hair and ran barefoot along the beach and into the cavern with the others. The cave was dark and lit with torches, making shadow figures above her. The damp coastal air, acrid inside the holy place, hung about her like a wet second skin. A goat with horns was tied to the altar, jumpy with the presence of the others and the premonition of its destiny. Kleopatra stared into its nervous brown eyes. She had already drunk too much wine from the bowl that was passed around the circle of initiates, and she felt light in her body but heavy in her head. She was frightened. This was no place of worship such as her father had built in honor of the god, no elaborate, painted room in a palace. This place was primeval and hidden from sight, the kind of place where an uncivilized thing might transpire and no one would stop it.

A Maenad crone with tufts of silvery hair placed a tortuously woven crown of ivy on Kleopatra’s head, making her more aware of her tingling scalp. She drank a bowl of foul-smelling liquid, a mushroom broth to give her greater communion with the god. It was like drinking mud, mud or some fluid of the dead, something not meant for human consumption. The vile substance mingled with the wine in her stomach. She belched up a putrid combination of the two.

A cramp snaked its way through her intestines and made her double over. She felt her ears close to sound, as if a gate inside her head had dropped, shutting out the world and locking her inside her body. She wondered if the god punished his followers – inquisitive mortals wishing intimacy with him, wishing to know the secrets that lurked below earth’s surface, the mysteries that made flowers bloom and vines grow.

Time passed, or did not, and Kleopatra became aware again of her surroundings, of the voices of the Bacchantes invoking the name of the god in a hollow chorus that sounded as if it came from a deep tunnel. The sound became song and then became pure sound again, neither word nor name, but a hum that gained power as it merged with the echo of the cave and the bleating of the goat. Kleopatra joined the chorus, chanting the name of the god time and again, letting her sounds converge with the whir around her, becoming one with the others, an isolated princess no more, but now reduced to a dizzying vibration.

“His name is the Word.” The priestess made the initiates repeat the phrase over and over. Kleopatra moved as they moved, around and around the fire, around the bleating goat until the hum became motion. But she could feel nothing. She heard the high pitch of the animal’s cry and then saw the blood spill. Someone pushed her from behind. She fell forward, and the incarnadine liquid of the animal warmed her toes. Hands patted red prints over her dress, over her face. She yelled and continued to yell, spreading the warm liquid over her body.

Then she was running. No longer in the shelter of the cave but in the dark blanket of night. Running with the women, their hair loose and trailing behind their fleeting bodies like trains of a gown, their only cosmetic, the goat’s blood. Running barefoot, naked skin electrified by the shock of wet grass. Slowing as the grass turned to sand, slowing, slipping. Suddenly the cold water of the sea tickled her ankles, her knees, her neck, until she was immersed, fighting against the water to follow the torches the women held high above the waves. And laughter. So much laughter. Not echoing now as in the cave, but loose and dissipating as the sound of their fervor hit the diffuse ocean breezes.

Feet off the bottom of the sea, stomach falling, breath going out of her body, she was lifted onto a strong, wet shoulder. She felt as though she was breaking in two at the waist and kicked her legs up, almost falling head-first back into the ocean. The abductor leaned back, the two of them tumbling into a wave. She, lost, scrambled to evade him, but he caught her from behind and carried her like a baby out of the water. She did not know whether to struggle. She wanted to push away from him, but if she did, she would remain untouched by the god and untouched by man. She gave into the strong arms and closed her eyes, licking the salty water that trailed from a lock of hair pasted to her face.

Then she was down, a spiky patch of grass like a bed beneath her back. She opened her eyes, but it was dark. They had moved away from the shoreline to a desolate place behind the temple of Artemis. He was but a shadow figure, a spirit, kneeling over her. He stood up tall to look at her. The light of the moon illuminated his painted horrific mask, gigantic purple lips turned down, the image of the god’s face in displeasure. His body was lean and muscled, but hairless. An athlete, she thought. Did he know her identity? She closed her eyes again and heard the rip of linen as he tore her robe apart.

“You are just a child,” he said. His voice was young, not thick and low like the older men, like her father or the Kinsmen. Or Archimedes. He was not much older than herself. But he had passed that crucial time and was a man, for his penis stood straight out in front of him.

He entered her like some kind of hot swift weapon, wounding her, touching a place deep inside where she was sure no one belonged. She locked eyes with him. That was the only way she got through the pain. She was feeling now, but wishing that the numbness would overtake her again. She kept looking into his eyes, hypnotizing them both as he writhed on top of her, twisting and thrusting. Nor did he stop looking at her; neither knew any better than to play their roles without guile. He hurt her again with the intrusion of his flesh, so she screamed the name of the god. He looked frightened, pained, but he too invoked the god’s name until she realized that she was not only chanting with him but riding his rhythm. She ceased all resistance and locked her legs around his bare buttocks. There was nothing now but this, nothing in the world but the motion and the pain and the rhythm. Swallowing the word as she gasped for new breath, taking in the smell of the wet ivy crown, of the salty, sweaty boy on top of her, of the strange musky odor that came from herself.

But then – was it only moments into the act? – he choked on his breath and began to move faster and deeper into her. She kept with his rhythm, obeying a driving agitation from within. Suddenly, he uttered a loud snort and then a sigh. His eyes rolled into his head as if he were about to die. He arched over her, sighed again, and collapsed upon her. She screamed the name of the god, moving now with ferocity for all his weight was upon her. She kicked and screamed against him, calling the god, calling the name of her slave, calling Mohama, calling for Charmion. Nothing. She wondered if he had died right there on top of her in the service of the god.

And then she passed out.

The next morning, close to dawn, Kleopatra awoke in the arms of Charmion’s slave, a tall, silent Numidian man who only spoke to Charmion in halting Greek. Filthy and bleeding, her head spun as it fell back over his crooked arm. She tensed her neck muscles to still the whirlpool behind her eyes, but the insides of her head continued to move on their accord.

The tide had gone out, and the beach was covered with the slime of the sea. The initiates lay on the shore, their naked bodies wrapped in seaweed, as if a mermaid had come in the night and dressed them. Her partner had disappeared. She would never know who he was.

Wordlessly, Charmion took off her clothes and gently bathed Kleopatra, sponging away the sand, the caked and crusty debris of the body’s ecstasies. She led the princess to her bed, pulled the covers over her and said, “The princess is a woman now.”

They never spoke of it again.

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Karen Essex is an award-winning journalist, biographer, and fiction writer. She teaches writing workshops at Vanderbilt University's Women's Center.