Interlude; “Astarte”

 



Astarte’s first Temple of Demeter wasn’t a conventional temple building as such, but a twenty-three step ziggurat with a golden tree at the summit. It was there that she had sacrificed her lover Captain Attis in one of the first ceremonies of her new state religion.

“Why is she sacrificing him?” whispered Tihocan in my ear as we stood, dressed to the nines, the Atlantean Royal Family on full display.

“It’s a holy act of some sort. We show the gods how much we worship them by giving up something valuable.”

“What’s so valuable about a dead body?”

Qualopec – these were the days before he was crippled – added, sotto voce. “And which gods are benefiting from this death? Demeter, is it?”

It was all I could do to stop myself scratching my head in puzzlement. “I don’t think we are literally talking about the Olympean Demeter,” I said. “As far as I can tell Astarte is making herself the personification of Demeter on earth. For the people to worship.”

“So … she’s killing her boyfriend as a sacrifice … to herself?” said Tihocan.

“Don’t ask me,” I said, irritably. “I’m just a scientist.”

However the combination of a bloody crucifixion, the lovely new ziggurat and the appearance of use four Royals seemed to please our subjects. Astarte might be bonkers but she had her audience in the palm of her hand.

A few days after the spectacle or ceremony or performance art or whatever it was, I wondered over to the Mansion of Azaes and Diaprepes to see my famous, and by now heavily pregnant sister. (The foetus had congealed from the sperm of the now dead Attis.)

"Greetings to my Brightly Shining Sister Astarte, Defender of the Faith and Pioneer of the Atlantean State,” I hailed her.

“Greetings to my Royal Sister, Her Royal Highness Natla, Ruler, Empress and Goddess of the Western Territories,” said Astarte, who forearms were red with blood. Laid out on the marble slab in front of her were a couple of dead piglets and an array of metal instruments. Her shiny red fingers twinkled as she complemented her words with ceremonial overtones of meaning such as “love”, “respect” and “peace”.

“You will be overtaking me in the science of anatomy, my learned sibling,” I observed.

“I could never attempt to match your all encompassing knowledge nor your sense of the deeper processed both microscopic and macroscopic,” smiled Astarte. “No, I was merely trying out some new blades, amalgams made by our excellent brother Tihocan for my examination.”

“To what end?”

“I am interested in the mechanisms of flensing and flaying, skinning and scalping. Sundry mutilations - noses, lips and so on.”

I found myself raising an eyebrow. We Atlanteans were fairly blasé about death and suffering and to us slaves, prisoners or war and such like were of less consequence than a useful animal, such as, for example, a laying hen or a swift hound. We did not see all human life as equally valuable. Nonetheless Astarte’s obsession with blood seemed to me a little … dismal.

“How about we go down to that artificial beach that you like on the edge of the Middle Circular Sea?” I suggested, playfully. “We could drink those intoxicated fish drinks you used to gulp down by the half dozen.”

“What a pleasant idea, my Esteemed Natla,” said Astarte, holding a sickle up to the light and examining the fine wave pattern in the metal of its blade. “I fear however that I have to be ready for the birth of this child.”

I glanced at the servants hovering nearby. “What is there to prepare for? We have at hand towels and water and the midwives. A young physically fit specimen like yourself should have no more trouble birthing than a peasant woman squatting in a pond.”

Astarte laughed. “You misunderstand,” she said, washing her hands in a bowl of water and drying them on a silken cloth. “The birth will be nothing, but so will the child, a mere bastard, illegitimate, not worthy, not royal.”

“That’s a bit harsh. Why, my own mother Atlanta was nothing more than a chattel, a piece of goods, a thing, and yet our father Atlas sanctified her unworthiness by making her, however briefly, his queen.”

Astarte embraced me. “I meant no comparison, no slight. The two situations are as alike as ice and glass, fire and flowers, wind and song – only superficially, not in the slightest atom the same. No – this child of mine was a crime, an abomination, and I need a way to atone and to be seen to atone.”

I put my hand around her shoulder and looked into her guileless indigo eyes. “So what do you propose?”

“A ceremony. True - I could excoriate the foetus like a tumour or a chancre and fling the resulting five fistfuls of flesh to the dogs and have done. But then I thought – is this not an opportunity? Can we create light out of dark, meaning out of chaos, beauty out of tawdriness?”

“You sound a little fevered, my beloved sister,” I said, placing the back of my fingers on her hot brow. “Let us sit together on the bench by the fountain under the olive tree, and I shall bid brought some chilled ambrosia and light rice cakes whilst we hold our conversations.”

“Very well,” she said, somewhat reluctantly. “I see one of my architects hovering, clasping plans for the new Temple, his brow decorated with blood, sweat and tears. May as well receive him in comfort.”

We adjourned to the bower as suggested and I signalled for cooling peacock feather fans to be waved over us and a lyre quartet of soothing sonorance to sound.

“Come Dōrieis,” said Astarte, “bring me joy or I shall execute the messenger.”

Dōrieis’ lips trembled and his eyes filled with tears. He was a clever man, a mature man, a family man, an artist and an artisan and yet all of this is of no consequence when one is a disappointer of princes. May as well be a dumb dolt.

As he trembled out his news – the second Temple of Demeter was behind schedule – Astarte picked up the incense stand (that which kept pests and irritants away from our Royal presences) and after pressing the lighted coals into his eyes, beat him to death with it. I contributed a couple of kicks to his prone body.

“You just cannot get the staff!” she raged, stamping her little slippered feet. “Feed his corpse to the Royal Eels and execute his entire family.”

“Maybe some pity to dilute the fully justified Royal fury?” I suggested. “Mercy is like a light drizzle dropping from the heavens, as the saying goes.”

“Very well. Merely exile the bloodline of this leech, feeding on my time and patience.”

“Wise and moderate, my Sublime Sister.”

“And yet still I am tempered beyond the melting point.”

“Have some mint leaves with your ambrosia and let me stroke your fingers.”

We sat in contemplation for a while. I cannot describe the interval in modern minutes, for as you know the Atlantean time scale had one hundred “seconds” to the “minute” and one hundred “minutes” to the “hour” and ten “hours” to the day, and counting Atlantean “seconds” is two or three times faster than counting modern seconds … but let say it was five to ten minutes of silence.

“Well maybe, like the birth, we can make a virtue of a disaster and have the new Temple deliberately rather than accidently shorn of all ornament.”

“It might be pleasantly understated and set a new vogue.”

“Maybe we could call the new style Dorian after their hapless creator, meaning basic, humble, unostentatious.” Astarte’s humour was returning. “Plain columns, square pedestals and capitals, blank walls, glassless windows.”

“An artistic notion,” I said. “My sister is lyric in her vision.”

We sat for a further Atlantean while, watching the wildfowlers ensnaring various types of nightingale and wren in their nets by the shore.

“I just go for a lark’s tongue,” I said. “With pomegranate.”

“I’m peckish, but wait!” Astarte sat up suddenly, her eyes flashing with her idea. She gestured to a slave and whispered in their ear.

“What?” I asked, smiling.

“I have a new dish for you to pronounce upon.”

After a moment or two a server approached with a dish of ice harvested from The Mountain. Arrayed tastefully on the surface were what looked like chilled flakes of the most thinly and delicately carved meat, pink and mouth-watering.

Astarte chose a fragment morsel with a silver prong and held it to my lips. “I cannot decide if it is best ‘as is’ or whether it requires a dressing or condiment of some description,” she said.

“What is it?”

“I shall wager a thousand obols and gladly pay if you can guess.”

“You have yourself a bet, my Royal Sister,” I said, confident that my princely palate and scientist’s senses would identify the dish.

The meat was melting, delicious, a prize, like baked and honeyed pork, or the most tenderised and highest quality porpoise flesh. My saliva burst forth and I found myself ‘smacking my lips’ as they say. The surface texture was that of peaches and yet the sinews were like the best of boiled heart or of bull’s pizzle.

“By the Lords of the Sea and the Sky,” I exclaimed. “What culinary treasure is this?”

“That, my Beloved One, is for you to guess or to suffer the forfeit.”

Well, dear reader, I tried. Jaguars' earlobes, wolf nipple chips, otters' noses - I named a delicatessen of dishes. Astarte giggled.

Eventually I gestured to one of the household servants. “Fetch the Lady Astarte a thousand obols,” I said. “She has bested me, no easy feat, and has well earned the wages of her wager. So?”

Astarte smiled for a second and then said “Human! Human flesh. To be precise - the meat of an infant, milk-fed to the perfect weight and then blood-drained and prepared to my exact instructions by my chef.”

Slaves are not supposed to pay attention to the conversation of their masters unless bade to, but I caught one or two looking at me ought of the corner of their eye, interested no doubt in my reaction to the news.

I dabbed my lips with a napkin and raised a goblet in a salute. I felt fine, but I was – shall we say – a bit surprised.

“An interesting choice,” I said, carefully. “Not something that one hears of much in Atlantis.”

“But one of impeccable pedigree,” said Astarte. “Was not our own Grandfather Poseidon devoured alive by Great-grandfather Cronos?”

“Of course. Now you mention it, I recall the incident.” Personally I regarded the whole Cronos incident as a political allegory about how the Olympeans had bested another race in some fashion, but I was prepared to let the subject drop. I gestured at the pink and blue clouds. “Wonderful weather we’re having for the time of year don’t you think?”

Astarte wasn’t stupid, and she gave me a piercing purple stare from beneath her black curls.

“You disapprove?”

I laughed. “I neither approve nor disapprove, my darling Astarte. It’s not my choice of dish, but it is yours and that all there is to it.”

“Did you not say it was delicious?”

“It is, as are many things, but I do not eat them all.”

“Name one thing.”

I struggled. “Liquorice root. I love the taste but fear for the whiteness of my teeth.”

Astarte snorted and then sat sipping silently at her ambrosia.

“Is it the death of a human that offends?” she said.

“Of course not, provided they were born of a slave,” I said. “We regularly slaughter people of all ages for a number of reasons.

“It is that the human was an infant?”

“I love eating young flesh, be it veal, lamb or puppy. Yum yum.”

“It is eating the meat of a being bred solely for the cooking pot?”

“I would be a hypocrite if I did,” I said, “for I regularly stuff myself on the breasts of corn-fattened geese. Why, I even think one could modify animals using the scientific arts merely to make then more toothsome.”

Astarte raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I’d want to eat food assembled in a workshop.”

“Well, there you are. We all have our likes and dislikes. May I offer you a small cake?”

And so eventually came the day when Astarte gave birth to her own bundle of deliciousness and, as I have recounted elsewhere, braised the corpse on a Sacred Brazier and disarticulated it with Sacred Artefacts before dedicating the sacrifice to deities that were only apparent to herself. The congregation received the sliced and iced slivers of flesh on their tongues, with Astarte urging them to eat that they might have eternal life. It seemed that Tihocan’s razors were a great success.

Afterwards Qualopec came to see me. He strode in, unclasping his bronze sword before throwing it down, and then sat on a squat stool, legs apart, his manhood visible beneath his military skirt.

“No formal greeting, my dear brother? No loving exchange of titles?” I said, kissing him on the cheek.

“There is no time today, my beautiful Natla. We already know who we are. Or I thought that we did.”

“Of course, my paragon of masculinity. What’s the emergency? More taunts and attacks by the Amazons of Libya?”

“This business of Astarte killing and eating babies,” said Qualopec, accepting a goblet of alcoholic beverage and knocking back a gulp. “It seems wrong to me.”

“Oh?” I said neutrally.

A faintly haunted look began to creep across Qualopec’s craggy features. “Let me attempt to explain by use of an anecdote,” he said.

“I love a good anecdote,” I said.

“From time to time during our campaign to civilise the world we have come across savage tribes, little more than cavemen, who devour each others’ flesh. They chomp away with gusto and without a qualm. Creatures barely possessing language, what little wits they have seemingly sapped by dining on the fresh brains of their compatriots. The sight of these shaggy howling beasts throwing down rocks onto our regiments from the arid crags of some nameless mountain range still chills my dreams. These beasts - for I will not name them men - present us with a grim precedent.”

“Are you attributing their barbarism to their cannibalism or vice versa?”

Qualopec smiled. “Spoken like a courtier,” he said. “Maybe both. My point is that perhaps the human race is a race apart, a race beloved of the gods, created in the image of the gods. Some creator took the undifferentiated stuff of life that teems over the land and in the sea, and like a sculpter has breathed significance into insentient clay.”

I shrugged. “It is true that there appears to be something that differentiates us from the common apes,” I said, “some of whom, like the chimpanzee, think nothing of devouring each other. As a scientist I had always concluded that the difference was merely an opposable thumb and a gift for vocalisation, but as the grandchild of an Olympean God I am forced to acknowledge the existence of the unknowable other.”

“You take my point?” said Qualopec vigorously. “Maybe we have been placed in this paradise on earth like treasured pets of the gods, and as such our own flesh is like a forbidden fruit.”

“You fear that if we eat this fruit the knowledge of our own former natures will overcome us, and that we will, for the first time, feel ashamed to be human?”

“I fear you have lost me there, beloved sister. But I am strictly a Lords of the Sea and the Sky kind of man, and although I recognise the right, perhaps even duty, of Astarte as High Priestess of the Atlantean State to examine new forms, new way of thinking, I cannot help but feel uneasy. An admittedly illogical voice inside me cries out that eating people is wrong.”

I could not help but nod at his words. We sat in silence, each lost in thought.

Then I thought I saw a way through that might satisfy everybody, even the gods if they were paying the remotest attention to Astarte and her infanticidal antics.

“Maybe we could pass a law,” I suggested, “forbidding the eating of human flesh to all but a select elite, a priesthood who stray from the natural to the supernatural, risking and sacrificing their own beings for the greater glory of the gods?”

“Martyrs of the occult, risking heavenly wrath in the pursuit of an arcane truth?” said Qualopec. “With Astarte at their head, her more insane impulses channelled into religion.”

“A state-sponsored Holy Lunatic.”

Qualopec leapt to his feet and grasped my forearm. “By truth I think she has it,” he exclaimed. “Happy Atlantis to be governed by such wise rulers as ourselves.”

“May we reign for a thousand years,” I replied.

It was some time later and we Royals were sat in the rain watching Astarte’s latest ceremony atop the first Temple of Demeter, now renamed by her the Pyramid of Mars. She had caused to be dragged to the new stone altar (that replacing the Golden Tree of Attis) a screaming prisoner of war, captured in one of Qualopec’s many military triumphs. Before our eyes she cut the living heart from his body and presented it to the thunderous sky.

Land of Blood and Glory,” she sang, “Empire of the Freed. See how we extol thee, with this ghastly deed.”

“Still as nutty as a fruit bat,” muttered Qualopec, the rain dripping from his helmet.

“The people seem to like it,” said Tihocan hopefully.

“I quite like it in a weird sort of way,” I said. “It’s always interesting to see what atrocity her fertile imagination comes up with next.”

“I love a good public execution myself,” said Qualopec, “but does it all have to be so avant garde? What’s wrong with chopping their heads off or throwing them from the nearest cliff?”

Tihocan poked him playfully. “Oh go on, Big Brother. You love it really. Our Royal Sister is a genius.”

And that note we ended in agreement, applauding politely as Astarte kicked the still twitching body down the blood-stained pyramid steps before calling for the next sacrifice.