Where the Oleander Blooms

Reverend Allyson Szabo

[Note: Awarded Second Place in the 2008 Literary Agon — Historia Category]

The sun rose up behind the low mountain, filling the air around the assembled worshipers with a dark orange haze. Mist still clung lovingly to the shoreline, diffusing the early morning light and making it difficult to see beyond a few feet. As the first yolky crescent of the sun peeked over the city, the fifty or so people attending the day’s sacrifice shucked out of their khitons and himations, and lowered themselves into the chilly embrace of the sea.

Exclamations of shock filled the air under the watchful eye of the priestess of Dionysos overseeing the ritual. The water was cold enough that skin shriveled immediately, and goose flesh erupted in a split second. Still, the attendees did not rush their washing; to do so would be to go unclean before Dionysos, an unthinkable insult. Men and women struggled out of the salty sea, dripping water from shivering flesh, and wrapped themselves in warm linen khitons and himations of pure white. The only colors seen were the trim on the robes, a vibrant green and purple weave reminiscent of grape vines, and the red khiton donned by the priestess when she finished with her own bathing.

Very little talking marred the morning silence. The sun slowly ascended the sky, Helios’ rays warming the group. Steam rose from their newly scrubbed bodies, merging seamlessly with the surrounding mist. The group watched with trepidation as the sacrifice was brought forward by the priests. The pure black bull had not a single mark upon its huge yet graceful form. It snorted somewhat nervously as it was led, but showed no protest. The priests led it to the sea, where they use hammered silver bowls to pour the water over the beast. It stood passively, undisturbed by the pure, light blue liquid streaming over its hide.

The worshipers adorned themselves with garlands of woven ivy and grape vines, and held baskets of offerings to give to Dionysos. The sacrificial bull’s horns were oiled, then painted with gold flake, gilded and shining brightly in the early sun. It was bedecked with ribbons and flowers, and it also received an ivy and grape garland to hang from its horns. The participants quietly sang holy songs and dithyrambs, preparing mentally and emotionally for the ordeal to come.

The youngest girl in the group, just 12 or 13 and almost marriageable, was brought forth by her parents. Her honey hued hair was released from its braids, to fly free in amber waves. A delicate veil of white lace was lowered over her, covering even her face, representative of her purity and virtue. The priestess handed her the fated basket containing barley, grain cakes, and buried within, the sacred killing knife. Her mother whispered something to her, and a hint of a smile could be seen through the veil. She turned to face the sun, and let Helios’ rays wash over her, blessing her in her newfound adulthood.

Proudly, head high, she led the way toward Dionysos’ altar and temple.

After the girl, two priests holding large water jugs walked. Behind them came the eldest male, bearing the incense burning smokily within its brass censer. Women, holding ornate platters of colorful food stepped into the procession, followed by the remainder of the people attending the ritual. Musicians scattered themselves throughout the large group, and the cheery sounds of panpipes and drums, zitars and flutes floated merrily on the morning breeze.

The way to the top of the hill overlooking Naxos was twisted and steep, but well marked with white stones. The sun glinted brightly off insweeping waves and glistening seashells at the shoreline. Gulls screeched overhead, circling and diving over the waterline in search of sweet morsels of crab. The pungent sea-salt scent permeated the air around them, tickling their noses. Sweet eddies of the smell of grape blossom mingled with the salt, a unique combination that was reminiscent of incense.

The bull’s wide hooves crunched loudly in the gravel, and its gilded horns shone brightly in the sunlight. All eyes were on the top of the hill, where the small temple to Dionysos stood, with its large courtyard altar and fire pit. At the top, a small grassy place to the right of the path opened up, allowing the worshipers to pause and contemplate the area before entering the sacred precinct of Dionysos.

A wide circle of stones delineated the sacred space, which was large enough to accommodate a hundred people or more. A scattering of olive trees surrounded the temple, providing shade here and there. At the far side squatted the massive marble altar, stained dark with old blood and beside it, the flame-scorched stones of the fire pit dipped into the receiving earth. The warm rays of the sun bathed the entire area in beauty, picking out the grape vine mosaic on the front of Dionysos’ temple in flickering light and shadow.

The priestess was the first to enter the temple’s courtyard, after pausing to wash her hands from one of the ewers of sea water. Using a branch from an oleander, she walked the circumference of the place, sprinkling the purifying water all around her. The young girl with the basket followed behind, her soft voice rising to sing ululating arias as her small hands scattered grains of barley. Her duties ended,  she placed the grain cakes onto the altar piously, then backed away to the side, leaving the basket with its hidden knife below the altar’s edge.

The priestess returned to the worshipers, and oversaw each person washing their hands in silence before entering the cleansed area. The bull was ceremoniously asperged with the last of the sea’s water, and the onlookers were pleased to see his powerful head nod, almost in acquiescence of his sacrificial role. The priestess drifted away, leaving the priests in charge of the sacrifice as the center of attention.

All eyes followed the priests closely as the one with the duty of administering the killing stroke smeared white clay over his forehead, cheeks, and the backs of his hands. His ghastly countenance was frightening, but understandable. As the bringer of death, he set himself apart from the others. Clay was painted onto the bull’s forehead as well, so he matched his sacrificer. He was offered clear, cool water, which he drank peaceably. The priest smiled gently, and caressed the jowls of the huge bull in a friendly way before leading the animal to the altar.

Each participant approached the bull and the altar, pausing to look the animal in the eye before taking a handful of the barley grains and returning to their places. The musicians fell silent, as did all other sound. Only the scree of the far-off sea birds and the rustling of the gentle wind in the olive branches was heard. The fire in the pit was coaxed to life, and its smoky smell wafted around the hilltop.

The priest raised his hands in prayer, addressing the Gods of Olympus in general. Then, he lowered his arms, hands palms down, not quite touching the stone of the altar. His sonorous voice rang out over the sacred precinct as a single drum beat, reminiscent of a heart beat, filled the background.

“Oh, Dionysos!” he cried out, “We honor you today, Lord of the Vine, Lord of the Wine. Son of Semele, we bring you this bull, dark and perfect, and we pour out his life to you, that you may bless us and accept our prayers and petitions!”

The worshipers tossed their barley onto the altar and the bull, in unison, crying out, “Io Dionysos, Lord of Wine!” Everyone took a step back, aware of what was to come next.

The priest reached into the basket of barley, and with a practiced movement so swift that the bull moved not an inch, sliced the forelock off its head and tossed it into the now-blazing fire. The women keened softly, and pulled their coverings closer about them. Some closed their eyes, unable to watch due to the tension and overwhelming emotion of the moment.

The bull blinked its limpid, dark eyes once, and once more, as the priest moved the knife undulatingly before its face, mesmerizing it. It made a single low sound as another priest struck it from behind with a heavy mallet, stunning it. Its front legs gave way, and it fell to its knees as if bowing to the inevitable sacrifice to come. Its eyes closed, and a quiet huff blew from its nostrils as the mallet fell again, this time to the front of its head, breaking the bull’s skull and killing it instantly.

The priest with the knife jumped forward, expertly slashing at the gigantic animal’s throat, severing the artery. A hammered silver basin, akin to the one used to wash the bull in the sea, was used to collect the animal’s blood, which was then spilled freely over the barley-strewn altar.

The women cried out, their high pitched ululation rising to the heavens. They called out to Dionysos, and in more than one case, bared their breasts as the ecstasy of the God filled them with a Bacchante-like fervor. Amphorae of wine were passed among the revelers, and everyone shared in drinking to and with Dionysos. Each made an offering of wine to the God, until the stone of the altar could not be seen for the blood and wine poured upon its slick, darkened surface.

As the worshipers celebrated, the priests were busy skinning and butchering the bull. With reverent care, they removed the hide of the bull, setting it aside for curing. Later, it would be tanned, and put on display in the temple, a fitting display for Dionysos. Their sharp knives made short work of the meat, and cuts of fat were carefully set upon the thigh bones of the bull, and placed near the crackling fire. A priest trained in the skill examined the liver for signs and portents, and everyone waited with drawn breath until he proclaimed it perfect, a sacrifice well accepted.

The women tended the fire, while the men whittled sharp, forked sticks from nearby brush. Onto these sticks, the priests put the inner organs of the bull, the ‘sweetmeats’ of the sacrifice. Those who had held active parts in the sacrifice and procession were each given a stick, and allowed to roast the organs over the glowing fire. They ate their portions with gusto, knowing they were favored by Dionysos for their part in his rituals. When the coals were quite red and hot, the thigh bone and fat were lowered into the pit, to sizzle and spit, the scent of the charring offering rising high into the air.

The musicians took up their instruments once more, filling the area with sweet music for Dionysos and his followers. The bones of the bull were reassembled and laid out upon the stone altar, making it look as though the bull had simply lain down and given himself to Dionysos. It was an impressive sight, taking up the whole altar.

Men and women began to come to the altar, alone or in pairs, with sacrifices to Dionysos, and offerings, and prayers of thanks. Food was placed lovingly amidst the bones of the sacrificial bull, and small statues and steles as well, with epitaphs and poems inscribed upon them. Wine was poured, staining the stark white bones, mingling with the offerings of the priests, and the blood of the bull.

When all the offerings were done, and the meat of the bull was cooked and ready to share, the priestess lifted a final amphora of the finest wine.

“I sing of ivy-crowned Dionysus, the loud- crying god, splendid son of Zeus and glorious Semele!” she cried, her gray-streaked hair falling in ripples down her back. The familiar words of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos wound a timeless spell over the worshipers.
“The rich-haired Nymphs received him in their bosoms from the lord his
father and fostered and nurtured him carefully in the dells of Nysa,
where by the will of his father he grew up in a sweet-smelling cave,
being reckoned among the immortals. But when the goddesses had brought
him up, a god oft hymned, then began he to wander continually through
the woody coombes, thickly wreathed with ivy and laurel. And the
Nymphs followed in his train with him for their leader; and the
boundless forest was filled with their outcry.”

Her sun-darkened hands, strong and lithe, poured out the wine over the grilling meat, over the charred thighbone and the ashes of the offered fat. Flames jumped up, hissing and spitting, vibrant purple and red and orange in color. Gasps erupted through the watching crowd, and the priests nodded together happily. Such flames were signs of a well-received offering!

The priestess continued singing, “And so hail to you, Dionysus, god of abundant clusters! Grant that we may come again rejoicing to this season, and from that season onwards for many a year.”

The amphora empty, she lowered its now-heavy weight to the ground. A reveler rushed forward to offer her a cup of wine, which she accepted, gratefully. The musicians doubled their efforts, and a wild exultation of song burst out, twining lusciously through the crowd like ivy made of sound.

As the day’s light dimmed and great Helios dipped below the mountains in the distance, the wine flowed freely and the meat filled the hungry bellies of worshipers and priests alike. Wild and exotic dances were performed by men and women, both singly and in groups, filling the sacred precinct with laughter and joy.

Below the hill and temple, the disapproving worshipers of other gods might frown in disapproval at the display of immorality above them, but the followers of Dionysos didn’t care. The blood of their god flowed in their veins, encouraging them to embrace him fully and wholly. They clapped and jumped with his strength, cried out with his voice, and praised his joy with breathless voices.

Perched unseen in the branches of an elderly olive tree, Dionysos scratched his beard, and savored the rich scent of his offerings. Ariadne, his beloved, curled against him, one fair cheek pressed to his bare chest. His sense of pleasure emanated through the tree, his woman, and the people below. His peace was palpable, as night settled.

 

 

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