Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Herakles has always been a problematic figure. Older tales record the Dorian patriarchal hero, healthy only in body, a multiple murderer and rapist also given to theft. From these tales alone, it is difficult to understand how he came to worshipped as a god in a number of Graeco-Roman temples. The 'divine Herakles' was in fact a dying solar savior derived from a Tyrian god, and adored on that basis. The Dorian Greeks told how their Herakles ordered men to worship him in place of Hera, apparently considering women unimportant, and knowing they would not abandon their Goddess. It is telling this attempt to force Herakles into Hera's temples never succeeded. The best known ancient tales of Herakles are a small segment of the body of literature once surrounding Herakles-Melkaart (the dying solar savior) and Dorian Herakles, whose labours were meant to explain his scattered temples. Much of it has been destroyed by devotees of the rival savior Jesus. The reconstruction of Herakles-Melkaart has been done by Barbara G. Walker. The male figure is of no interest here. Rather, the daughter of Hera, properly called Heraklaea, is. Herakles was created specifically to replace this example of female power and self-rule, for the same reason the American government of today or the Soviet government of twenty years ago wished to prevent any knowledge of alternate political systems from being shown to the general public: to prevent any change to the status quo.
That Herakles is derived from an Amazon Heraklaea becomes a particularly convincing idea when examples of painted Greek pottery are examined. One Athenian red figure cup in the British Museum in particular has been interpreted as a depiction of Herakles with Hera. However, on this bowl 'Herakles' has no beard, wears an unmistakably Thermodontine Amazon costume and gorytys, and is not threatening the Goddess or being threatened in any way. Although it is true that at least one story of Herakles in 'drag' exists, he was not wearing such a costume. In every other depiction of Herakles, he wears the famous lionskin or regular Greek hoplite armour, and has an unavoidably obvious beard.
The first reconstruction of Heraklaea was by Bernard Evslin in 'Heraclaea: A Legend of Warrior Women.' He dealt mainly with reintroducing the concept of a heroic woman who helped other women and refused to live by the disenfranchising code of patriarchal society. In this reconstruction, that is assumed. It is now recognized if not generally publicized that history has always included many examples of such heroic women, considered spiritual if not literal daughters of the Goddess.
Prior to patriarchal interference, Hera was associated with neither husband nor consort. All of her children were parthenogenetic, including Heraklaea, who was conceived over three nights of the Full Moon during which Hera contemplated her divine lily. The third eldest of her siblings, Heraklaea was surnamed Alkmene 'strength of the light' or 'Moon strength' one of her mother's titles. Occasionally it was shortened to Alkaea 'strength' instead, and interpreted as referring to her earthly birthplace, Samos. Heraklaea was tutored by Athena in wisdom and philosophy, Areto the Goddess of justice in law, Aphrodite in crafts and sports, and by Artemis in shamanism and warrior's ways. Hera herself instructed her daughter in how to rule wisely.
Heraklaea was protected by a pair of her mother's divine serpents until she came of age. Now mature and able to defend herself, they licked her ears and eyes to give her the ability to understand the speech of animals, the gift of prophesy, and the ability to always see the truth. Already a fine scholar, she was trained in the priestessly sciences of astronomy, mathematics, time keeping, music, and writing. At the Heraeon Heraklaea was an unbeaten charioteer and warrior who proved her divinity by outrunning the Death Goddess Atalanta. She was the first winner of the Heraeon to have her image officially placed in the stars.
As yet, the patriarchal tribes had not seriously encroached on the matrilineal peoples who worshipped Hera and a broad variety of other Goddesses, although they had unintentionally contributed many women to the Amazon tribes and colleges of priestesses, and many men to the allied mixed tribes of Anatolia. The Amazon Nation was a vast confederacy, ruled by the Hippolytas in the North and the Cyrenes and Myrines of the South. Heraklaea's upbringing was by no means completely idyllic, but in as short a synopsis as this it may seem so.
When she came of age, it was time for her to pass through her initiation, better known as Heraklaea's Nine Labours. Her nine labours represent the traditional nine tests, three of which had to be passed by an initiate before becoming a priestess or an incumbent queen before taking the throne... who was of course, a priestess. In epic of course, the hero must pass them all, demonstrating the qualities prized by the culture the story comes from, and proving their right to divine status. For Herakles, he began as an epitome of physical health, dominating behavior, and good looks. Later he was remade into a rough patron of arts, and his association with correct moral behavior is an almost completely modern rendering. His avenue to divinity was his sacred marriage to the priestess of the Goddess and sacrificial death, followed by his apotheosis and marriage to the Goddess Herself.
Heraklaea has only nine tasks because the additional three labours given to the misnamed Herakles, cleaning the stables of Augeas, killing the Lernean Hydra, and stealing Hippolyta's belt were meant to give him the same number of 'great deeds' as houses in the zodiac. The last two labours are blatant tales of hostility to the Goddess and hatred toward women. The questionable status of all three is marked by each including mortal help, which Herakles was specifically told he was not allowed to have. For a Goddess-oriented tale, nine is a more symbolic number, sacred to the Muses or the nine-headed Mountain Goddess Nonakris.
THE NINE LABOURS
Most stories of the hero's journey begin with catastrophe. The hero's family is lost in terrible circumstances, or kidnapped. Some land is in terrible danger from a monster, or the rightful ruler has been deposed. Or the hero is on a quest for a weapon, or perhaps immortality or invulnerability. It seems a cardinal rule that the hero be coerced into the role. But Heraklaea's story begins with no more than a natural passage in the course of her life, since she had chosen to become a priestess. There is no shame in being unable to pass all nine tests, after all, most women only have to take three, and prepare for them for years. As Heraklaea travelled to holy Themiskyra, failure was never in her mind.
Her journey to Themiskyra fell in the most unpleasant time of year. Not when the fields are green and the plants make harsh crags look friendly. Instead it was rainy, cold, and dull, Themiskyra an angry, sullen set of peaks against the sky. The foul weather brought cold winds off the Amazon Sea, difficult to walk against for one woman alone on an empty road. This is the proper time for initiations. A priestess must be able to persevere through unpleasant appearances and realities.
Heraklaea arrived to find Themiskyra's vast gates open to Amazons, but the doors to its sacred caves fast shut. The elder priestesses waited patiently for her outside, seeming oblivious to the wind and weather. They led her quickly to a wedge of rock jutting high above the sea, the rivers Tanais and Thermodon clearly visible below. The wind was even more bitter there, and a single tree stood at the tip of the wedge, wind bitten, leaning into the wind like a determined hiker.
The priestesses gathered up Heraklaea's pack and cloak, then patiently painted her face with the white gypsum of youth, and the three red stripes of an initiate. Finally they lifted her up, chaining her by the wrists to the tree's one good branch, leaving her hanging over a foot off the ground. There she would stay for three days and three nights vigil. The Greeks tried to call this a punishment demanded by Zeus, never recognizing it as a ceremonial death and rebirth of the spirit. The Northmen who brought the warring Aesir to Vanguard recognized it, and tried to legitimize their Odin by putting him through a similar ordeal. But their understanding went only so far. They didn't realize this first vigil was only a beginning and no more.
Three days and three nights is a long time to wait, hanging unprotected in a bitter wind, struck by rain and hail. Hanging from the wrists induces unconsciousness sooner than exhaustion or hunger. Initiates rarely speak of their visions during this time, if ever. There is nothing to see outside but grey sky, grey water, and darker grey rock. The first ordeal is always to be left alone to face the self, to begin finding the Goddess there.
On the morning of the fourth day, the priestesses came again, gently releasing Heraklaea from the tree, wrapping her in warm blankets, chafing her limbs and feeding her warm broth. The hanging is part of every priestess' initiation, they well knew how hard it was. Finally they carried Heraklaea deep into Themiskyra's sacred caves, past its collections of sacred stones. Beyond where the smiths and carvers make images of the Goddess and the weavers fashion her robes. Down to the oracle herself, who first directed Heraklaea to the Holy of Holies.
Later invaders would force their way into the caves, searching for gold and jewels, or at least metal to melt down and make into swords. The scrolls and figures, robes and tripods, all was hidden away beyond their sight. At best they found rocks, polished rocks in many pretty colours, for which they showed contempt. None of them were jewels. Often the stones they found weren't even polished, merely rough fragments, some of them of strange substances they didn't recognize. There was no gold. No copper. No iron. Their eyes fell on the Divine Stone, and they saw nothing. Nothing but a hunk of blackened, dull stone with strange pockmarks. So they left in disgust, and would have set the place on fire if the rock could have burned. Heraklaea saw something entirely different. She saw the Divine Stone, an avatar of the Great Goddess who was her mother's mother, sent down from the sky to guide those who cared to listen and see.
The oracle waited patiently while Heraklaea composed herself again. Deep in the Earth, surrounded by rocks older than human imagination can encompass, the priestess felt no impatience. 'You are the salt of the Earth. Imagine that. And like all such salt, you must seek knowledge and learn wisdom.' the oracle said as Heraklaea knelt in front of her, still shaky from little food and her sight of the Divine Stone. 'I see a different destiny for you, than the others.' the old priestess' eyes turned thoughtful. 'You will guide and protect as long as there are stars in the sky, and people to see them. Whenever Amazons care to look, there you will be, ever present, stubbornly in their sight. Frustrating them if at first they fail to remember you. A wondrous fate indeed.' Heraklaea was puzzled. She didn't pepper the tall priestess with questions however. She understood that oracles were not meant to speak merely to give an answer.
Heraklaea then spent three moons learning in Themiskyra's caves. She learned many mysteries, and the laws of the mother clans and why even the tribes who worshipped cruel father gods once obeyed them, although no one was certain why those tribes had thrown those laws away. The priestesses checked her knowledge of the navigational stars, and presented her with a sacred crystal that shows the Sun even on a cloudy day. Finally, they explained to her her labours. Forewarned and supplied for a long journey, Heraklaea left to begin her Walking Time, which later writers called the Nine Labours.
1. THE NEMEAN LION
In many ways, the story of the Nemean Lion is a warning. She began as Hera's special creature, a representation of the force of life itself. Between each birth, be it of a world or a person, life was carried in embryonic form in the celestial womb or ark, a term sometimes used for the Underworld Sun, other times for the New Moon. Therefore the Lion itself was often called daughter of the Goddess Selene. Once she ranged freely from the lair Selene carved for her in the Nemean mountains, hunting as all wild animals that eat meat do. If a mortal encountered her, and was brave enough to neither attack nor run, she or he would be astonished to hear the Lion speak. The Lion would direct them to easy game, to something their family needed, or simply home if they were lost.
But the new Greek arrivals couldn't believe a ten foot tall supernatural lion with claws as long as a normal lion's foreleg could be coexisted with. Nature was an enemy to them, it had to be tamed, controlled. They turned their efforts to hunting the Nemean Lion, giving her no peace to rest or eat in. They ignored her speech and pelted her invulnerable skin with rocks and arrows. At last she became enraged, and no longer did she attempt to avoid the humans or show them mercy. Her powers perverted by anger and exhaustion, she raged across the land like Athena when the Egyptians invaded Tritonia. The nearby city of Kleonae was ravaged with plague, and the land groaned under failed crops and foul water.
The Great Goddess bears no love for cruel and senseless behavior, and her many divine daughters, from sorrowing Selene to fierce Artemis met with her to determine what to do. Many of the new Greeks were unpleasant neighbours, yet they were not evil at root. They were the Goddess' children like everyone else, but twisted by their belief in angry, bitter gods. The worst of their behaviour more often came from fear than malice. Some, against all odds, were much like the Amazons and their allies. The Lion would have to be stopped, before her anger annihilated the innocent and guilty alike. So Iris herself dashed to Earth and harnessed the Nemean Lion, dragging her back to her two entranced lair high in the mountains, soothing away her pain and anger. Sadly, the solution was only temporary. Hunters tracked the great beast up to her cave and attacked her there. Bursting forth from the mountains in a rage, her cave became a volcano hurling rocks and ash far and wide, filling the air with sulphurous smoke.
This was the situation when Heraklaea arrived at Kleonae, the town evacuated, mainly burnt or buried in ashes. Knowing of the Lion's invulnerability, and all too aware anything that led to a wounded and desperate animal would make matters far worse, she determined to meet it well away from the frightened townspeople. Years later older townspeople could still point out boulders and trees broken and flattened by the Lion and her opponent during half a day of struggle. The Sun was beginning to sink in the West, and Heraklaea found herself faced with the prospect of continuing the fight in the dark, where the Lion would hold the advantage thanks to her night vision and keen sense of smell. Not long after the Sun had left the sky, there was silence, and no sign of the heroine. Thinking Heraklaea had been bested by the Lion after all, the townspeople returned to their encampments in despair.
The next morning, as Hera's bright chariot began to flash across the sky, Heraklaea strode tiredly across the devastated landscape, carrying the Lion's great carcass over her shoulders. Pausing long enough to show the townspeople her burden, she went on to its two entranced lair, shattered and ruined by lava flows and explosions. Using its own claws, she carefully skinned the felled beast, using the pelt of its back and stomach for an overtunic, and working some of the rest into gauntlets and protectors for her knees. Caching the rest, she patiently buried the great beast under a cairn of volcanic rock, crowning it with a massive capstone. No hunters would disturb it again.
2. THE KERYNEAN HIND
Curious beliefs have accrued around the Kerynean Hind, a gentle, retiring beast like any ordinary member of its kind. It lived on Mount Artemisium, and like every other animal, plant, and rock on the peak, the Hind belonged to Artemis. Many coveted her speckled coat, bronze hooves, and gleaming golden antlers. Men could never catch her, seeing mere glimpses of her as she deftly eluded them with silence and speed. Some of these men came from tribes allied to the Amazons, and when they recognized their quarry felt no malice toward it or failure in themselves when they lost it. After all, the Hind was like Medusa. No man could be initiated into the mysteries she represented until just before death. Being unable to catch her meant death was not for today. Others came from the new patriarchal faiths, and considered their inability to catch the Hind an affront to their manhood. So they cloaked their lack of understanding with wild tales of a giant hind that ravaged the fields all around the mountain, a scourge to the land.
Heraklaea was astonished to hear a single gentle grazer who kept to the confines of a mountain was supposed to be shaving the fields bald. The priestesses of Themiskyra had taught her many things about the Hind, what it looked like, its preferred range on the mountain. It was the Spirit of Wisdom, impossible to catch even for the women who could see her. All the same, to gain the Hind's wisdom, she had to be captured. It was a vexing riddle, one Heraklaea still hadn't solved even as she stood at the base of Mount Artemisium.
Over the course of a Moon, Heraklaea learnt the ins and outs of the mountain. The places its rocks were given to slides, what plants and animals marked the beginnings of its colder heights. The sources of its chilly streams. In time she became as silent and elusive as the Hind, no longer an alien presence, and found she could approach it. Not quickly, not loudly, and not with spear or bow in hand. The Hind remained evasive, but still Heraklaea pursued it as diligently as her predecessors, with one difference. She had come to the conclusion she would have to befriend the Hind. Only then could she bring it to the shrine of Artemis and wait for the Goddess' decision. Ultimately, Artemis and Artemis alone decided who learned the Hind's mysteries, and who did not. Of course, by the time Heraklaea succeeded in leading the Hind to the shrine, she had learnt its mysteries. Artemis presented her with a new bow which was impervious to the weather, impossible for any but the young demi-Goddess to draw.
3. THE KRETAN LABYRINTH
Having proved her bravery at Nemea, and won wisdom at Mount Artemisium, Heraklaea now sailed to her grandmother Rhea's sacred island of Krete. As her ship approached, Mount Dikte blew out clouds of steam and smoke, considered a great omen by the captain and crew. The Mykenaeans hadn't come yet, nor had Thera blown itself into a thousand pieces. The streets were full of people, men proudly shirtless, unabashedly wearing brightly coloured penis sheathes that would eventually scandalize the Greeks. Women strode just as proudly, bare breasted, their brightly coloured bell shaped skirts echoing the sacred costume of the priestesses. Among them moved visiting Amazons, some in sobre leather and cloth from the North, others in bright kaftans and red leather from Libya. Heraklaea watched in fascination as two Phoenicians argued with several Egyptians, haggling over the price of a bundle of papyrus.
Remembering her purpose, she found her way off of the busy docks. A few moments search led her to the road to the Labyrinth, the holy domain of Ariadne, whose name was simply Rhea on Samos. Heraklaea found herself in the midst of a great crowd, all going to the Labyrinth to participate in its rituals. Some searched for spiritual rebirth, healing, or a meeting with the Goddess. A few others wanted to see sacred mysteries, saying they had travelled far and wide to do so. This desire baffled Heraklaea. Rituals were often mysterious, but her mother had taught her the mysterious sacred was anywhere you could see or touch.
At the Labyrinth, each person had to wait their turn to enter and walk its looping path. Heraklaea waited and watched with the rest, a curious sight in her lion's pelt and sturdy horse rider's boots. People came from the Labyrinth awestruck and full of wonder. Nevertheless, the seekers after the mysterious complained nothing had been revealed to them. Heraklaea found herself so fascinated and confused by their arguments, an attendant had to nudge her gently to take her turn.
The entrance to the Labyrinth was a great arch, its ends gently furled, making it a giant omega. The priestess of the door greeted her, then marked Heraklaea's forehead with a holy spiral in henna with quick, skillful strokes of a tiny brush. 'Good journey.' she declared, smiling as Heraklaea thanked her and walked into the first loop of the Labyrinth.
There was no light but for a single glowing thread on the floor, stretching away and around, clearly following the windings of the tunnels. A voice spoke from the shadows. 'All life depends on ordered light. Take the thread with you.' Startled but undaunted, Heraklaea picked up the end of the thread and walked on. Soon she found the best way to keep it from becoming hopelessly snarled was to wind it into a ball. Its solid weight and sturdy thickness became a helpful burden as the darkness grew more oppressive, and the walls seemed to tighten around her.
A priestess stepped abruptly from the shadows in front of her, robed in black, crowned in sacred cow's horns, a single small candle held between her hands. They walked side by side in silence, until the priestess reached into the darkness and produced a torch. Lighting it with her candle she held it up and commanded, 'Look.'
The walls were marked with silvery pictures of the phases of the Moon, and golden versions of the Sun. Some of the Sun images were skillfully molded breasts offering nourishment to the world below. One Sun breast particularly caught Heraklaea's eye, because its rays ended in tiny hands, and a vast scene had been carved in the stone below it. Each hand touched a figure, young or old, at work or play. It made her think of her mother, when the Samians spoke of Hera's protective hands. And then the priestess doused the torch and disappeared, leaving Heraklaea to move on, still patiently winding up the thread.
Finally she found the thread was now wound up completely in her hands, and that she must be facing the very centre of the Labyrinth. Unexplainably uncomfortable, Heraklaea moved forward slowly, eyes and ears aching as she struggled to hear and see in the darkness and silence. A voice spoke suddenly in front of her, so close she jumped violently, certain she must be all but standing in the circle of the priestess' arms. 'What do you carry?' Heraklaea looked down at her hands, full of faintly glowing thread.
'Light ordered.' she hefted it a little, understanding. 'The Sun!'
'Excellent, the door is yours to open.' Warm hands gently took possession of the thread, and turned her to face the door to the outward moving loops.
This trip was easier, knowing the open air and sunlight weren't far ahead. Somehow, the sounds weren't what Heraklaea expected. Previously, she had heard the chatter and arguments of the other participants outside, the sound echoing eerily with her steps until she passed completely through the first loop. Heraklaea frowned, knowing she must be near the end of the final outward loop, and yet still she heard nothing. Understanding eluded her until she brushed her gently searching fingers against cool, dry rock. Here was what the priestess had meant. The rock door which was drawn open for each of the other initiates... they had all spoken of the wonder they had felt as the day's light grew from a sliver, to a crescent to the arch that was an omega.
For a moment, Heraklaea felt panic. Then she set her shoulder to the rock, and heaved, first one way, then the other. It remained still, unmoving as Mount Dikte. Realizing her error, Heraklaea set her left hand against the rock's gently smoothed sides, and pushed, gently as the careful chisel strokes in the stone, allowing the rock to shift on its mysterious bearings, clearing the way to the outside.
4. THE PRIESTESSES OF HERA, RULER OF HORSES
Heraklaea's next task was to tame one of her mother's famed wind horses. Even her blustering brother Ares couldn't tame or corral one of their swift footed kind. His one perch on a broad backed, light footed stallion had ended in an ignominious fall. The horse loving Bistone of Thrake and the worshippers of Horse Taming Hera in the town people would later call Mykenae offered to direct him to his mother's priestesses, who could handle the horses with ease. He spurned their suggestions. He was a wind god, the animals were wind horses. If he couldn't tame them, it was the horses who were flawed.
He especially had no wish to be taught by the 'Man Eating Mares,' Hera's famous colleges of warrior-priestesses. They were experts in taming any horse or fighting on horseback, but their greatest claim to fame was neither of these. Unlike any other mortals, they had a strange affinity with the fierce wind horses. Their most famous leaders were Podarge 'swift footed,' Lampe 'torch,' Xantho 'yellow or chestnut haired,' and Deimo 'terrible,' who also presided over sacrifices of gelded stallions under the Full Moon.
Heraklaea knew better than to repeat her brother's mistake. Going to live among the Bistonian priestesses, she learned how to pass safely among the restless herds of wild horses, and how to guide them without rope or whip. They taught her what truly made them able to ride the wind horses. To a woman, the priestesses of Hera the Horsetamer were shamans, able to cross between the worlds in spirit. The wind horses also crossed between the worlds, most often the Earth and Sky. If a woman couldn't successfully complete a shamanic journey in spirit, she couldn't complete one in body either.
It was to become a shaman, able to tame and ride the wind horses that Heraklaea underwent her second vigil of three days and three nights. This time her vigil was below the ground, deep in one of Gaea's sacred caves after drinking the sacred horse's blood. Hobbling from the cave on the morning of the fourth day, she was allowed to choose freely from the herd of wind horses backlit by the growing sunlight. She chose Arion, all unaware this was the very horse that had hurled her own brother into the dirt.
5. THE ERYMANTHEAN BOAR
There were two marks of a righteous monarch in ancient mythology: the sovereign's healing touch, and the sovereign's peace. Both derive from the skills of the high priestess, often a woman who was both healer and peacemaker. These did not come from any magic, nor from wearing a crown, or even the signature belt and medallion of a priestess finished her initiate years. The beginning of the path to these abilities was typically symbolic, such as capturing a wild boar on the slopes of Mount Erymanthus. It was well known that every boar was one of Ares' totems.
Mount Erymanthus was yet another of Artemis' sanctuaries, this one with a resident college of priestesses. None but the leader of the college could kill an animal or wield the bow on the mountain. The hunters who participated in the annual hunt for the Erymanthean boar had little choice but to capture it alive with ropes and nets. After the beast captured for the year was brought to the Goddess' shrine, it was beheaded with a labrys, and its meat distributed in a great feast.
It was late in the year, and the boar hunt was held in the fall, well before the first snows. Frost had silvered the ground before Heraklaea had broken camp on her first morning within sight of Mount Erymanthus. She was certain she had missed her chance to participate in the boar hunt for that year. The mountain would be empty but for its fifty priestesses, and the usual compliment of squirrels, bears, and trees full of the tiny birds who always seemed to survive the bitter winters without migrating, she was sure. Instead, the mountain was still full of tents and small bands of Amazons attempting to stave off boredom without breaking the law of Artemis' sanctuary or disturbing the peace in the towns nearby. They were waiting to participate in the hunt, which had been held up nearly two cycles of the Moon by a disagreement between the leader of a band of Centaurs and a contingent from the town of Chadesia.
Heraklaea climbed up to the shrine of Artemis, pausing respectfully just outside of the enclosure of sturdy stone. It was empty inside but for a young Amazon laying flat on her back in the grass, gazing up at the sky, watching the stars as they slowly began to emerge from the darkening tapestry above. Artemis' roofless shrines had a way of encouraging such stargazing sessions. The scene was peaceful enough, and Heraklaea moved quietly on, choosing to leave her sister Amazon undisturbed.
It wasn't so peaceful around a glowing bonfire some distance away. The Centaurs sat on one side, looking sullen and bored. Many of them were fingering their bows, flashing pointed looks at the Chadesians, several of whom were leaning negligently on spears across from them. There was little else they could do with their weapons, all use of them being forbidden to any but the head priestess of the mountain. On seeing Heraklaea, the Centaurs were immediately on their feet. They were worshippers of Hera under her title of Nephele, and knew quite well who the young warrior was. The chorus of complaints and angry denials by the Chadesians finally resolved themselves into an explanation of why the boar hunt still hadn't happened, and what had inspired such a foolish stand off.
The Chadesians were famous for their ability to wield the spear and javelin. Few could throw as far or use either weapon as effectively as a well trained Chadesian. Even the raiding patriarchal tribes who had forced the building of impregnable city walls and highly trained armies held them in fear and esteem. The conflict between the Chadesians and the Centaurs started innocently enough, with an impromptu spear throwing competition a short distance from the mountain. A javelin had been sent awry by the wind, and seriously injured one of the Centaur's beloved horses. The horse's furious owner had started a fight with the Chadesian competitors, and matters had soon grown to a full war of words and accusations. Other groups of Amazons had soon taken sides, and the head priestess had suspended the boar hunt, which required cooperation among the hunters for its success with a minimum of injuries.
All attempts to carry the quarrel to where it could actually be fought over were then neatly foiled by the priestess, who invoked the law of Artemis' shrine, that any who brought a quarrel to it couldn't go home before settling it. As things stood, it looked very like a new Amazon settlement would have to be started on Mount Erymanthus. Except, now Heraklaea was there, and the Centaurs firmly believed she could solve the entire puzzle in time for the hunt and the trip home before the snows began.
Heraklaea sat in quiet contemplation of the problem for several hours. She could arrange to replace the horse, but this wouldn't heal the rift between the Chadesians and the Centaurs. They had fought each other for years off and on, not like siblings, mostly with words and games, but like allies who felt no trust in each other. And the Amazon Nation could not survive if its members mistrusted each other. Knowing what she had to do, Heraklaea went to the head priestess. After the evening meal, the word was given. The hunt for the Erymanthean boar would go on tomorrow, but only the Centaurs, the Chadesians, and Heraklaea would participate.
Having the potential combatants hunt together certainly seemed daft at first glance. The Centaur's unbounded faith in Heraklaea convinced the Chadesians however, and they made no complaint as Heraklaea had the Centaurs act as beaters, and the Chadesians set up the nets in order wait to snap them shut when the boar barreled into them. Both tasks were highly dangerous, and if one group failed, death or injury could easily be the result on both sides.
Carrying the wriggling boar in its layers of nets to the shrine between them at the end of the day, the tension had eased enough for the Chadesians and Centaurs to put their impotent weapons aside. The feast became the first step in peaceful relations between the two tribes.
6. THE STYMPHALIAN BIRDS
Besides strength, tenacity, wisdom, and peacemaking skills, a heroine needed to demonstrate cunning and quick thinking. Heraklaea's chance to show these qualities came as she travelled through the forest and swamp of Stymphalus, to its temples of Hera and Artemis. Artemis' temple was the first one a traveller saw, festooned with statues of bird legged women and gorgons. The priestesses sometimes wore bird masks ornamented with feathers and bronze beaks. Later authors would call them monstrous women with bird heads, or monstrous birds with the heads of women. Other priestesses of Artemis forged bronze arrowheads for the hunters, although these would soon gain fame as armour piercers. Carvers covered the stones and pediments with pictures of Artemis' deeds on Earth, echoing the great temple at Aretias.
Shortly after her arrival, a determined band of Greeks besieged the temple, lusting for its bronze and other mythical treasures their priests imagined from the poetry of Artemis' hymns, never recognizing the pretty metaphors for the descriptions of Earth, Sea, and Sky they were. The Amazons had seen the signs of the times, and both Hera's temple and Artemis' were well fortified. Each temple was built over a fresh water spring. At best, the Greeks were tantalized by glimpses of the helmeted heads of the defenders. Listening to the enemy camped before the walls, speaking carelessly loud because they believed Amazons knew no Greek, Heraklaea searched for any means to break the siege in their tales. Two of the strangest and most helpful concerned death, which the soldiers feared deeply.
The venerable funerary priestesses of Athena and Kirke were no longer feather cloaked women guiding each soul back to the Great Mother to the Greeks. Now they were monstrous human-headed birds who brought misery and terrifying death. The thick, gloomy woods inspired stories of Artemis' Wild Hunt, a gruesome chase during which she struck down the unwary with bright silver arrows. Her hounds were slavering wolves, and her pallid faced beaters thumped bronze drums and clacked bronze castanets. The Greeks had wholly forgotten the Wild Hunt was an enactment of the inescapable pursuit and punishment of evildoers. Now Heraklaea could see a clear plan of action.
As for any sound banishing exercise, the priestesses waited for the Dark of the Moon to act, cleaning and repairing feather cloaks, collecting and mixing thick white pastes of gypsum and chalk. The smiths turned their cunning hammers to new castanets, bronze drums, and slender scales of bronze that chattered vigourously when attached to clothing. Every night before the dark Moon, choruses of Amazons practised ululating bird calls and wolf howls, filling the Greeks with superstitious terror. The night of the Dark Moon, the charge from the high walls was led by the priestesses in feathered cloaks or headdresses, their clothing chattering in the wind, faces and exposed skin painted white. The pounding drums and ululating cries scattered the panic stricken Greeks. No tales of treasure and potential bed slaves could convince them to return again.
7. THE MOON CATTLE OF HERA
Long before the arrival of patriarchal tribes and long after, there were many Amazon islands, mysterious colonies sometimes visible from the shore. Often they were further out to sea, fading in and out of sight in banks of fog, or seeming closer than they were in watery mirages. The island of Erytheia in particular was difficult to find by those who didn't know the way. Even the seawise Kretans half believed the island floated like a ship, always changing position, impossible to find twice. The three Moon priestesses of Hera who ruled the island were called 'weird women,' the 'weird sisters.' Many believed they were the Moirae. More often they appeared in stories as the Graea, or as a shrunken version of the Gorgons. Every other Amazon on the island was considered just as strange, because they considered cows so sacred they were never slaughtered. Instead the Amazons lived off of their crops and blood and milk they drew periodically from the cattle. There were three breeds of these fortunate animals, one milky white, one the deep purple-red of menstrual blood, and the third midnight black.
Heraklaea arrived on the island unsure of her purpose there. It hardly seemed to be to learn from the Amazons, although she did. Their language especially was strange, sounding like none she had ever heard before, even if it did have familiar words in it, like 'kali,' and 'uma.' They were strange Amazons indeed, their skin neither the deep brown tones of the Libyans or the bluish black of the Ethiopians. Yet dark skinned they were, with the high bridged noses and strong chins Heraklaea was familiar with from some of Aretias' oldest carvings. Heraklaea listened, fascinated, as the women spoke wistfully of a homeland only their grandmother's grandmothers had ever seen, a land of awesome mountains and easily flooded coasts.
It was a terrible storm that presented Heraklaea with her task. It blew a mysterious ship into Erytheia's harbours. The crew was entirely male, men who spoke continuously of the fury of their sea god and the restless ire of their four wind gods. They weren't allowed to land of course, Amazon land is forbidden to all men. Food and water they took quickly enough, then complained when there was no meat with well fed cows in sight. First they cajoled, offering money, gifts, and then themselves like they were breed bulls. The Amazons laughed good-naturedly at such strange and foolish offers, explaining the cows were sacred and could not be killed. But the men's persistence and attitude disturbed Heraklaea, especially as their tone turned unpleasant, filling with barely veiled threats. Her first instinct was to drive them away, but the high priestesses seemed unworried. So she sat with her fellow Amazons on the long night watches, pondering how best to send the men on their way.
It was in the midst of one such watch that the men poured from their ship and into small boats to land on the shore and attempt a cattle raid. Heraklaea drove them back easily, pelting them with stones a javelin's throw from the beach, pinning them among the sands and rocks until the other Amazons arrived in force. The men wasted no time retreating to their ships, weighing anchor and fleeing. From this labour Heraklaea learned to trust her instincts and to refuse to blindly obey authority.
8. THE APPLES OF THE HESPERIDES
The human imagination is a vast and skillful thing, conjuring a thousand tales from a single image, each one a little further from the last until the original idea is lost. One once common image was of Hera or her mother handing a golden apple of immortality to a worshipper, the promise of perpetual rebirth made manifest. It was granted to men and women alike, so some pictures showed Hera young, middle aged, and as crone, her mid-aged self handing an apple to a man. Others showed her simply as a crone handing the apple to a young woman. Most famous of all was her snake icon, often paired with Athena's spider icon. The former showing Hera standing by one of her sacred apple trees, her snake form curled about its trunk, the latter showing Athena at the loom, her spider form hanging nearby. All of these became strange and opposed to their original meanings as the Goddess was edited from the new religions. So Heraklaea's eighth labour was a true wonder to the patriarchs, before they expunged it from their records.
Now Heraklaea rode the wind horse Arion to her mother's apple orchards in the Far West, tended by the Hesperides, priestesses of the setting Sun and the Evening Star. It was time for her to learn how to heal the body and mind. But healing did not only include the living. Healing also included soothing the dying, easing their fears and passing them back to the Great Mother in peace, and comforting the ones they left behind. The learning began with the apple, because hidden inside every one is a holy pentacle, and every apple can act as a surrogate heart in the afterlife. Learning these things was not in itself a task, after all, Heraklaea was known to be a fine scholar.
Early in her sojourn in the holy orchards, Heraklaea wandered amidst the trees, admiring their rich foliage, and the curious tinkling rustle of their leaves, as if they were made of metal. One large tree, standing majestically apart from the others had leaves of rich green on one surface and burnished silver on the other. The trunk forced Heraklaea to rub her eyes. It looked polished, like a finely made table top. The branches were bent under the weight of golden-red apples. The beauty of the tree and its perfume drew Heraklaea closer. 'Stop.' a voice said near her feet. Looking down, she saw one of her mother's sacred snakes, its glossy green skin melding perfectly into the grass where it was still. It flicked its tongue and spoke again. 'Stay away from that tree.'
'Why?' Heraklaea asked promptly. There didn't seem to be any danger or other obvious reason to keep her distance.
'If you eat its fruit, you are able to see the truth about life and death.' answered the snake.
'A person isn't supposed to know the truth about these things?'
'Does death end life?' asked the snake in turn.
'Of course.' answered Heraklaea.
'Then death is an evil, and humans were not meant to know about it. The best way to avoid being tempted by the fruit is to stay away from it. So stay away from the tree.' declared the snake. The argument was logical enough. But Heraklaea found herself thinking of how fearful things like bleeding with the Moon had seemed, before her mother had explained them to her. Sometimes those times left a woman in pain and foul mooded. Even so, bleeding with the Moon wasn't considered evil, just a natural, sometimes uncomfortable part of life. 'I don't believe you.' Heraklaea said decisively, and walked up to the tree, running her hands over its smooth bark, and fingering a few of the fallen leaves.
'Well done, my daughter.' Heraklaea looked up in delighted surprise. It had been long cycles of the Moon since she had seen her mother, and she ran into the tall Goddess' arms without hesitation. 'No edict that bars knowledge and breeds fear should be obeyed.' Hera plucked an apple from a heavily laden branch, causing the entire tree to ring softly. 'This apple is yours.' And so was the power of healing touch.
9. JOURNEY TO THE UNDERWORLD
Heraklaea had passed through many harrowing adventures, and become famous throughout the Nation. The Thrakians spoke adoringly of the heroine, who wielded her sword in her left hand instead of her right, a true asymmetrical warrior dedicated to the Goddess. Anatolian tribes spoke of her skill with the bow and on horseback. The Amazons sang her praises, taking care to give thanks for Heraklaea's many acts in their defense. Only one task remained for her, the most harrowing of all. Few priestesses journeyed to the Underworld to face Hekate of the Gate, Persephone of the Long Journey, and Themis the Judge.
Understanding that worldly possessions had no place on this journey, Heraklaea removed her lion skin, her weapons and all her jewelry save the labrys she wore on a leather thong, a gift from her mother at her first bleeding with the Moon. Wearing only a simple tunic and leather sandals, she climbed high into the mountains, to the cliff where the rivers Kokytus and Acheron hurled themselves into the Deep. There she fasted and purified herself for three days and nights before going on to Aretias, the favoured entrance to the Underworld for the patron Goddesses of the Amazons. Once there she was sealed in the holy incubation chamber.
Hekate of the Gate showed her many things, bright illusions that confuse perception, and shadows the mind can easily conjure in the dark. Wise in shaman's ways, Heraklaea faced these illusions calmly, and felt no panic even when the dark Goddess left her for a time. Closing her eyes, Heraklaea watched the patterns on the insides of her eyelids, wondering curiously what caused them. Having shown she could tell truth from fears and shades, Hekate gave her the absinthe liquor drunk used only for such deep trancing, and left Heraklaea to begin her descent to Persephone of the Long Journey.
Heraklaea opened her eyes and found herself laying on a cool stone before a tall entrance covered only by a thin veil. An Amazon stood quietly to the left, holding a box in one hand. This she handed to Heraklaea. 'Do not open it. It contains knowledge only the Death Goddess Herself may see.' The young initiate knew the correct way to pass this test already, still she decided to check and see if the veil and the box were connected the way she thought. Thanking the Amazon politely, she reached out to touch the veil. Despite its flimsy appearance, it was as solid and immobile as granite. Nodding slightly, Heraklaea opened the box. Resting in it were a clod of Earth, a vial of water, a miraculous yellow flame burning without any apparent fuel, and a sky stone shimmering like the inside of a mussel shell. 'The four ways to return the Dead to the Great Mother.' intoned the Amazon. The two women bowed to each other, then Heraklaea stepped through the veil, which had become as soft and yielding as silky spider webs.
Almost immediately she stumbled over a man from one of the hostile tribes on Amazonia's western border, recognizable by his loose tunic embroidered with the symbols of his clan, chained to a rock. He wept piteously and clutched her sandals. A second Amazon stood nearby, her eyes cold. Pity urged Heraklaea to simply break the chains and let him go. He was still a child of the Great Mother, after all. But he was here, and she didn't know why. Choosing to be cautious before acting, she asked the guard quietly, 'Why is he here?'
'He is being punished. He is as mortal as any other of his people.'
'Yet he is here.'
'He led bands of marauders in raids on the sacred shrines of Delphi and Ida to steal the sacred offerings. They defiled the altars and raped and murdered the priestesses. Nothing forestalled his actions, not even when the priestesses simply handed him what he said he wanted. He will remain here, prevented from causing further harm, until his dark god comes for him.'
Shocked that one person could lead such cruelty, Heraklaea sighed quietly in relief. Terrible it would have been if she had acted without determining why he was there first. Gently untangling his arms from her feet, she sent a quiet prayer to the Great Mother his next life would be a just and kind one, and moved on. As if by magic, his demeanor changed and he shouted furiously at her, denouncing her as no better than the women of the shrines he had devastated for the glory of his god. 'I could do worse than to be no better than theHeraklaea descended deeper, walking around the seven winding loops of the Styx, an experience so eerily similar to her visit to the Labyrinth on Krete she half searched for the glowing thread. She struggled through stunning heat and bone chilling cold, floods of water and clouds of blasting dust. Remembering her purpose, she persevered, refusing to allow the physical hardships to turn her back. At last she faced Persephone of the Long Journey, she who was both terrible and irresistible. All around were tables groaning under food, rich wines, fine clothes, jewelry, anything Heraklaea could have enjoyed. Shaking herself and returning her mind to the purpose of her journey, she addressed the dread Goddess. 'Hello, Holy One.'
'Hello, Heraklaea. Please, do not feel shy. Enjoy the riches here.' replied the Goddess.
'I can't deny I would like to, Holy One. But I also can't break my fast or abandon the task I am here to perform.' The Goddess nodded and smiled, clearly pleased. 'Well met, Heraklaea. A priestess must be able to keep to her purpose. You may go on to Themis the Judge.'
Divine Themis sat patiently weighing deeds in her scales, tipping the better of the two in favour for most. Like the Virgin Mary or Hathor of Egypt, she was merciful and reserved her ire for the evil and cruel. A deep chasm glowed orange beside her, the crucible of new souls. Breathing deep, Heraklaea stepped forward to take her turn, watching as the Goddess began to weigh her deeds. Finding them brave and honourable, Themis crowned her with laurel and apple branches before sending her back to her body.
Waking in the depths of the incubation cave, Heraklaea felt strange and lightheaded. With one hand, she felt the wreath of Themis, and noticed the gentle smell of apples for the first time. Speechless with wonder, she climbed to her feet and outside, into the rising sunlight. The waiting Amazons watched in awe, for she was a half Goddess no longer, her body glowing like the Sun. Clasped about her waist was the plated belt of the sacred warrior, the medallion of the high priestess hanging about her neck. She did many more great deeds on Earth, until finally she rode her wind horse into the sky, where she watches over the Amazons from among the stars.
- In the 'Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.'
- Now out of print.
- Rendered a lotus in Eastern cultures.
- Suggested by J. McLeod, personal communication, 1999.
- His name should have been Diokles.
- The ancient Greek terms for colours tend to describe a range of related colours rather than single specific colours. So Chloris can be translated as any colour from yellow to green, Cyane as any colour from dark blue or black to light blue.
- A concept rediscovered by Barbara G. Walker in 'The Women's Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets.'