The Daughters of Minyas

Robin Robertson

Son of Zeus, son of the thunderbolt,
Iacchus the twice-born, child
of the double door, Bromius
the roaring god, the coming one,
the vanishing one, the god
who stands apart; god of frenzy
and release, god of the vine.
The one
of many names and many faces.
The horned god. Young
beyond time.
The god
that changes. The Other.
Dionysus.

*

‘And noise, just a lot of noise: drums,
cymbals, flutes – not even music – shouting
and screaming and dancing up the mountain
to kill some goat, no doubt.
And all that blooming ivy …’

‘They say Mount Cithaeron flows with blood …’

‘Wine, more like.’

‘They say the king has gone.
That when the women were done with their play
and finally laid him down
he must have been tired
for his head rolled away like a stone.’

‘They’re all drunk. I wouldn’t believe a word.
Another false god turns up and off they go.
If that pretty boy’s a son of Zeus, then I can fly.
Believe me, it will pass.
It’s the priests I blame: whipping up this madness.
Our servant girls deserting their tasks –
their looms and basket-work – unbinding their hair
and putting on garlands, carrying those spear things,
those fennel stalks tied up with vine leaves,
burning incense – and all of them dressed
in animal skins, for heaven’s sake.
You won’t catch me in some procession
up a mountain with a bunch of stupid girls
because a priest says we should celebrate a god.
Him and his so-called mysteries.
We are the daughters of Minyas
and we have our god – sweet Pallas Athena –
and we don’t need a false idol, or his wine.
Let’s pass the hours while we spin and weave
by telling stories, and by the time we’re done
all will be quiet and everything back to normal.’

‘Here’s one. About how the mulberry changed
from white to red because of blood.
An Eastern story this, about the handsome Pyramus
and his neighbour, the beautiful Thisbe.
Separated by their parents, and a wall,
each night they kissed the stone that lay between.
They pledged to meet, after dark, by this tomb
with a mulberry bush nearby. Thisbe gets there first,
but is scared off by a lioness all bloody mouthed
from some ghastly business. She escapes,
but drops her shawl, which the beast tears to pieces.
Then along comes Pyramus, finds the shawl
and thinks she’s dead, so kills himself.
Blood everywhere. All over the bush.
Then Thisbe returns, of course, sees her loved one
lying dead, and kills herself. More blood,
and that’s why mulberries are red.’

Lovely story, but a bit dull. No sex, at least,
for once; that’s a relief.’

‘Here’s another. It tells how the Sun falls in love.
But before that, we hear how his light sees everything first:
in this case, brightening the bed where Ares lies
entertaining Aphrodite, wife of the fire-god Hephaestus …’

‘Oh, the cripple? The donkey-rider?’
‘The very same – but now cuckold too. And so Hephaestus –
who’s good with his hands, if nothing else – fashions this
invisible net of bronze, finer than the finest spider’s web,
and traps his wife and her lover in the very act.’

‘Disgusting. And I suppose the other gods were watching?’

‘Of course – which fuelled the shame
of Aphrodite, and stoked her vengeance.’

‘Against her gimp of a husband – the blacksmith?’

‘No, no: against the Sun! She makes him fall in love
with this virgin princess. He turns up in disguise, then
discloses himself to her – you know? And so,
overwhelmed by his radiance, his magnificence,
she gives in. As you would.
But there’s another girl who also loves the Sun,
and in her jealousy she tells the king,
who’s so furious at his daughter’s crime
he buries her alive.
The Sun, distraught, tries to save her, but to no avail.
“In spite of Fate,” he says, “you’ll still reach up to heaven,”
and sprinkles the ground with nectar. Up comes
this shrub of frankincense, stretching to the sky.
The other girl, meanwhile – the jealous one –
is changed into a tiny flower, doomed to turn her face
forever, following the sun.’

‘Good. They got what they deserved.’

‘Time for one more.
This is the story of the fountain pool whose waters
turn men’s bodies soft as girls’: home of the nymph
Salmacis, who wouldn’t follow Artemis, who chose
the mirror and brush over the javelin and bow.
When a beautiful boy – almost a man – appears
at the pool, she’s eaten up by desire and tries
to kiss him, but he’s still too young to understand.
She retreats, watching him slip off his clothes and dive in.
Beside herself, she plunges after him, pulling
him under, taking him by force, and praying
to the gods that their bodies will never be parted.
And so it was, like two trees grafted,
they were made one – and that one
was neither man nor woman: it was Hermaphroditus.
In his new voice he asked his parents,
Hermes and Aphrodite, to curse this pool forever,
so that any boy who swam in it would be unmanned.
And so it came to be.’

The daughters of Minyas sat in silence, then, for a while.

Eventually, they went back to their work:
taking their minds off the boy in the pool,
the gods in their bed; those mulberries.
They busied themselves with their weaving,
trying to forget what was going on
up on the mountain with all the other women
and their ridiculous prophet. Not wanting
to even think about it (the hard
young bodies and all those wet mouths
turning to feast) they kept their hands moving
and stayed very quiet.

A quiet that was torn open – that moment –
by shrieks, drumbeats, horns, bones
and bells and pipes, the bleating cries
of things unspeakable, the air dense and sweet
with saffron and myrrh; and then,
unbelievably, their weaving turned to green.
Their looms were sudden tents of ivy, twined
and looped with its emerald and jade, the curtains
swagged with fruit, drooping tapestries of vine –
their gold brocade and delicate laces
now swathed in budding creepers, blue-veined leaves.
Each thread became a tendril, their spools
and spindles tightening and thickening to stems,
festooned now with the dark red
flesh and weight of grapes.

The house shuddered into dusk
and all the oil-lamps flared up
and torches spat and smoked
in every room and all around them
grew the shapes and sounds of beasts.
Each sister shirked the light, flinching
from the flames into the deep shadows,
and as they scuttled in corners
a new skin started growing,
stretching from their withered arms
to their shrivelled feet, though they were
too busy flittering there
to notice.
But when they tried to speak their grief,
all that they heard was a tiny
high-pitched squeak.

No human can hear them now
where they hang, huddled in the rafters,
under the thatch.
Shunning our daylight
they flit only by night
and take their name
from the time that they appear:
the vesper bats.