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Lydia's Recapitulation (5)

Priam, Prince of Troy, Asia Minor, c. 1250 BCE

 

I, Lydia of Damascus, continue my recapitulation of past lives with a second historical identity. Well, almost historical. The Trojan War described in the Iliad dates to somewhere in the 13th Century BCE, matching the chronology of Herodotus who put it at 1250 BCE; although the Delian chronology from Homeric sources puts it five centuries later. More recent estimates tend to scale it earlier by about a century. The timeframe designated "Troy VII," which is contemporaneous with the late Hittite Empire, lies well within the scale of recorded history, but it also floats elusively in the realm of legend.

Priam killed by Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, detail of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 520 BC–510 BC. Louvre.

It is pretty certain that a fabled prince named Priam lived in the 13th Century, although his existence cannot be historically proven in the way that, say, the existence of Sargon of Akkad, can be proven. Sargon ruled in the Fertile Crescent after 2250 BCE, making him a thousand years older than Priam, but he is historically more substantial than the Trojan prince due to records and artifacts. Priam has less hard evidence attached to his identity, but more glamour and romance, making him a celebrity in ancient poetry.

The memory of Priam's world was boosted to global dimensions by amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822 - 90) who demonstrated that Troy was not a merely mythical place but the actual site of historical events. As amateurs often do, Schleimann broke the paradigm of scholarly research and merged myth into history in a sensational manner. The photograph of his wife Sophia wearing the jewelry of Priam's wife Hecuba dazzled the world when it made the rounds of the international press at the end of the 19th Century. That single image brought ancient history back to life in a way no scholarly treatise or archeological find had ever done.

The glamour of ancient Troy belongs to a warrior world of male heroes, hard-muscled champions of patriarchy who dominate the scenarios of recorded history. For a woman this story is particularly difficult to recover and restore. It is fraught with ambiguous values, front-loaded with assumptions about phallic supremacy and the tyranny of procreation. The patina of patriarchal legend lies thick and hoary on the memory of Priam. In many respects, the Iliad is a disgusting celebration of Rambo-like machismo, its leading characters lacking nobility and humility in equal measure. The much-touted humanity of macho warmongers such as Achilles is brief and opportunistic. Their phallic arrogance and worship of violence are painfully all too obvious.

But the Iliad accurately reflects diachronic recall and cannot be disregarded.

The story of Priam discloses the vicious undertow of male domination of history and history-making: patriarchy has done as much harm to men as it has done to women. Accounts of past lives do not reduce to a pat "moral" of some kind. Human lives have no neat closure or resolution. Reincarnation is not a clear progression that corroborates some kind of wished-for assurance of reward and punishment... But the life-story of Priam is an exceptional case, a kind of moral fable illustrating how manhood has been wounded by the rule of the father and how the phallic imperative degrades individual men. The lesson was not lost on Priam himself, perhaps. He was often overwhelmed by the fate his paternal role forced upon him. His murder by Neoptolemus was shameless and gratuitous, a scandal to the ancient sense of honor. But how honorable was Priam himself, anyway? We'll see.

This recapitulation is number five, midway in the complete "braid" of nine life-stories. Having began this rite of recall after jupiter turned retrograde on May 12, 2008, I am presenting the middle recapitulation at the moment it turns direct, four months later: September 9. The remaining four recapitulations will emerge in the three-month interval between the current moment and December 3, 2008, when jupiter returns to the exact degree it occupied at the moment it turned retrograde in May (23 Capricorn in the sign zodiac). The full interval of eight months (May through December) is the timeframe for a ritual of recovery with the operative rite to be performed at the start of the ninth month, December 2008. The "significance" of these biographic legends is non-ordinary and non-linear, but this aspect of the narrative exercise will not be fully apparent until the corresponding rite, the Cording of the Braid, has been performed.

No act that touches and evokes the emergent mystery of the cosmos can be completed without interacting with the cosmos.

Rape Child

The young Hittite warrior named Priyama was an outsider in the fraternal cult that ruled Anatolia and the Levant, well down into Syria. From as early as he could remember, Priyama was treated with scorn and suspicion, as if he were deformed. His mother had been an Harrapan from a family of weavers in the Indus Valley. He had no memory of her face or any family situation, for he had been raised by Hittite women from the age of two. In a recurrent dream he saw himself finding family relics in a musty trunk: a skull, a shawl, some hard-fired clay cups decorated with snakes and flowers. He woke in a shivering panic, sometimes to a wet bed.

Priyama vaguely understood that his familial religion centered on Rudra, the Bull of Shiva, but also on Parvati, the beauteous consort of the male deity, the jewel in her master's crown. Such a balance of male and female power was alien to the Hittite world. The identity of Priyama's father was unknown to the ruling fraternity, but he was rumored to have been a hardened warrior who reveled in plunder. Priyama's mother had certainly been a victim of raid rape. From as early as he could recall, the young orphan felt shame toward his origins, even though he knew next to nothing about them.

The Hittites were a militaristic clan that ruled the high central plateau of Anatolia with a ferocious sense of aggression. They avidly indulged in combat for the purpose of conquest— the training camps rang with tales of the defeat of the powerful Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II at Kadesh—but also purely as a test of male prowess. Regency passed strictly from fathers and sons in complete disregard for women. In this atmosphere, Priyama's questionable paternity was not strictly a disadvantage. Sixteen generations before he lived, Hattusilis I who brought the Hittite kingdom to power had adopted a son named Mursilis, who went on to conquer Babylon. Priyama sometimes dreamed of being adopted and elevated to royal status in the eyes of the world—a way to resolve the problem of his paternity. But first he would have to prove his worthiness as a gladiator willing and able to battle and kill other men.

The Hittites routinely sent young men into remote areas to test their manhood against wild beasts and the glory-seeking gladiators who wandered across Asia Minor in quest of combat. The martial challenger called Heracles appeared in many men who carried the wrath of the goddess Hera but no longer served Her wishes. The end of the rites of Goddess initiation changed the hero's destiny. Men of many races had once revered the Goddess and honored mortal women as her priestesses, but no more. Now they resorted to games of power, taking their rage out on each other. They became mere upholders of paternal rule and brute force. At the age of fifteen, Priyama was expected to do the same.

When the moment came for him to venture forth and test his manhood, Priyama felt both excited and confused. He was relieved that he would finally be able to gain respect from his Hittite peers. At the same time, he wondered if he might not ever return to the capital city, Hatussa. Would the power quest give him the opportunity to escape from a world where he never felt he belonged? It was a tempting thought, but then where would he belong? He was filled with wild ideas about contests for power and the prize of captive women, without any sense of where he would live out such adventures. In his tormented mind, eastward was the realm of his mother, the homeland to which he could not return because he had never been there in the first place. Westward lay other prospects, perhaps the resolution of his fatherless destiny... in any case, escape from the precarious status of a rape child.

Priyama had heard that there was a great sea due west of the capital city, and he longed to stand in that sea. Hittite legend said that a mountain in the midst of that sea had erupted in the time of Mursilis, spreading a black cloud of death over Asia Minor. People had covered themselves in moist dung for protection against the burning dust. Priyama readily accepted the power of the earth to lay kingdoms low and destroy the population, and almost relished to see it happen. He was torn in his heart about the destruction man himself could wreak on the world, yet he lusted to test his own skill in such destruction.

The River Scamander

Priyama armed and provisioned himself carefully according to the custom of the warrior's quest, took a strong pony of his liking from the garrison stables, and rode furiously away from Hatussa. The usual route for those in quest of martial challenge would have taken him south to the Levant and eventually into the splendid mountains of Lebanon, the domain of the most celebrated of all heroes, Gilgamesh of the Sumerians. But Priyama was seized by the desire to ride due west toward the great sea in the middle of the earth, and all the way to the limits of the known world, if it came to that.

After many days he came to the river Scamander that runs west, then turns north and feeds into the great sea. He rode in a leisurely manner along its southern bank, knowing from local reports that he had not far to go to reach the river's mouth. Just where the water began to widen into a flood plain, he saw on the other bank a party of women in rich robes and glittering jewelry taking their ease by large, sumptuous tents, chatting with traders and merchants who displayed their wares, all the while guarded by a vigilant band of armed men. Priyama hid his horse and climbed among the rocks, fascinated by this spectacle of foreign women apparently free to do as they pleased. Careful not to be seen by the guards, he moved closer to the shallow river for a better view.

The laughter of the woman echoed over the water and fell on his ears like an enchantment. Was it possible that he had never heard women laughing before? Surely not like this—not in such a lively, carefree way. Their laughter had a sharp, enticing ring to his ears. He was amazed to see the women largely ignore the presence of the men, almost seeming to mock them. Priyama felt a knot of anguish twisting in his heart. His mind swam with conflicting thoughts he could not define or control. Weak from hunger and exhaustion, and now overcome by strange emotion, he fainted, only to be awakened by a spear prodding his side. One of the guards had crossed the river on patrol and come upon him. Taken to the encampment on the other side, he found himself surrounded by soldiers who teased and threatened him in his own language and other tongues, including the Lydian spoken at the nearby capital called Troy, known to him in as Truwisa.

The guards were ready to put him to death on the spot, but some of the women protested. They said he was too young, and, besides, he might be able to serve them as a valet. The guards found this suggestion uproariously funny, causing Priyama to flush red with anger and humiliation. One of the women, whose name (he was later to learn) was Hesione, came forward suddenly and threw a yellow shawl over him, claiming him for her personal servant. Priyama was overwhelmed, first by anger, than by other emotions he had never felt before. His mind flashed to his mother, the weaver, and he pictured wildly how she might have woven such an elegant tissue from soft flaxen threads. It seemed that his mother was in some way looking after him, protecting him through the extravagant gesture of Hesione. Suddenly, Priyama's heart flushed with a sense of affection and belonging that he had never glimpsed before. In the same breath, he felt the deepest, sharpest jolt of shame he had ever known.

The sensation lasted only a moment before his male instincts came to the fore. Proudly stiffening his neck and speaking in a hoarse voice, Priyama threw off the shawl and called upon the guards to treat him as a warrior and kill him, if they wished. But the women rallied to the cause of Hesione, closing in a circle around him. Apparently, they were members of the royal house of Troy who could command the soldiers to their will. They insisted that the young captive be taken back to meet Laomedon, prince of their tiny feudal realm.

Father Trouble

The women counted on Laomedon's kindness: having no sons of his own, he might extend paternal affection toward the young foreigner. And they were not wrong. Laomedon and his wife Themiste received Priyama graciously. Eventually, they accepted him as their adopted son. Due to the manner of his rescue, he became the darling of the entourage of women kept by Laomedon, wife and concubines alike. He was known in local gossip as the boy who had been ransomed by the care of women.

Troy was a small but luxurious feudal realm, its royalty accustomed to a life of leisure and privilege. The men of its militia, the Trojan warriors, were known for their hardiness, bravery, and strength. Laomedon encouraged Priyama to participate in military games and cultivate the style of a warrior, but he also set the example of a sybarite, a soft creature of sexual indulgence. The royal custom that combined polygamy and concubinage assured solidarity in the small, self-enclosed feudal empire of Troy, with many sons being dedicated to service in the royal militia. For the adopted prince, this custom proved to be a mixed blessing. He felt his sense of manhood in conflict with his feelings of gratitude for the women who would be his wives and consorts. The incident with Hesione had left Priyama vulnerable to female influence in ways he could neither understand nor control.

In his twenties Priam (as he came to be called) acquired two wives, Hecuba and Laothoë, and in the ensuing years, a total of fifty wives, counting concubines. Over the next five decades he fathered sons and daughters out of a sense of duty to Laomedan who had conferred the paternal role on him. He learned that Trojan politics was a fragile affair, dependent on alliance marriages to neighboring realms. If posible, daughters had to be provided from the royal stock. On the other hand, neighboring tribes and countries as far away as Persia and Hindustan provided contract brides for the Prince of Troy.

Priam enjoyed this bounty of woman well enough, but often he was conflicted about it—the embarassment of riches. His two Persian brides were so equisitely beautiful that he dared not touch them. To caress and enter such a women seemed to him a sacrilege, though he could not define why. But his lack of attention direly wounded them and wrecked their lives. They pined away in the harim, anguished by the rejection of their chosen master. The obligation of procreate for the cause of his adopted lineage threw Priam back into doubt about his identity. He harbored the sense of being a fraud, for he was not really a Trojan in the legitimate blood-sense. He was a foreign intruder who had been rescued by women. The deal was not to his liking, yet he owed his life and privileges to it.

And there was another, more troubling aspect to his role as progenitor: each wife and concubine posed a challenge to his manhood, his sexuality. He found it easy enough to pour his seed into a woman and conceive a child on her. More difficult was to have the transaction be pleasant, or even exciting. He could take a woman at his will, wife or concubine, but he could not make any woman want to be taken. The warriors of his realm often compared a woman to an walled citadel like Troy itself, a well-defended place that must be beseiged and won by force, but Priam was repelled by the comparison. Any woman could be conquered that way, like a city won by rape and pillage, but how could a woman's desire be won? Even if she submits totally to a man's superior physical power, that does not meant she want him to take here.

The polygamous prince was uncertain if any of his women actually wanted him, yet his intimate life was not entirely without tenderness and attachment. He was close to Hecuba and his daughters, Cassandra, Laodice, and the illegitimate Medesicaste, and he had a particular fondness for Andromache, the bright, lively wife of his son Hector.

Paris and Helen

Rather than routinely begetting offspring, as he might well have done without anyone commenting on his behavior, Priam felt compelled to court the women who would bear his children, even to pander to them. He was rarely successful. Pleasing women was a complicated matter, it seemed. Poor amative relations both deepened his shame and sharpened his anger toward the opposite sex. To make matters worse, the children of his concubines who were deemed unfit or undesirable for royal purposes were routinely taken into the Troad and abandoned. Priam viewed this practice with horror, but was unable to protest it. His status as favorite son, adopted prince of the realm, obliged him to follow royal policy without criticism or reticence. He was expected to dote on children from his wives, such as Hector, and encourage his sons to become men of steely resolve, fearless defenders of Troy. What happened to his discarded bastards was none of his concern.

In his mid-fifties, Priam received an unusual shock. Through a series of events predicted by the royal augur Laocoön, a boy of fifteen was brought to the court. He looked like a version of Priam at the very age he had come to Troy, but a softer, almost effeminate version. His name was Paris. It turned out that he was one of Priam's sons who had been abandoned in the wild, but found and raised by artisans from Thymbra, a town on the Scamander. The omens concerning Paris aroused Priam's deepest guilt and reignited his troubled feelings about his origins.

He took Paris under his wing, but the boy proved disinclined to the paternal ethic and unfit for military life. He openly preferred the company of women to men. He enjoyed archery as a pastime and shunned the Trojan custom of breaking horses. He excelled in the art of conversation and foreign languages. Eventually, his father directed him toward a diplomatic role as emissary to the mainland Greeks and Aegean allies. On one of his visits to Greece, Paris met Helen, the wife of Menelaus. They had an irresistible mutual attraction and became sexually enmeshed. In defiance to all convention, Paris brought her back to Troy with him. The Greeks took this scandalous affair as an excuse to make war on Troy, which they had been hankering to do for generations.

The Skull of Rudra

Priam's daughter Cassandra was a wild child gifted with prophetic powers. Seeing dire times ahead for the princedom, she suffered visions that drove her mad because people refused to believe her. She foretold that the wooden horse presented by the Greeks as a peace offering would contain armed men, but her warning was disregarded. Other ritual auguries and natural omens pointed to the same prospect of impending doom for Troy and its inhabitants. The conflict began with the Greek armies raiding the city from a beachhead on the coast. Many of Priam's sons were slain in the first waves of assault. Among these was his favorite son Hector, the husband of Andromache, daughter of the Cilician king of Thebe, an ally town in the Troad. Achilles who murdered him treated his body with disrespect, dragging it around the city walls tied to a chariot. So great was the rage of the Greeks against the Trojans that they eventually sacked all the ally towns in the region, and made sure to exterminate every member of the Trojan family. Odysseus threw Hector's son Astyanax from the ramparts of the royal citadel. Many women, including Hecuba and Andromache, were beaten, raped, and, if not murdered in cold blood, taken into slavery by the Greeks.

After a siege of nine years, and a truce of twelve days to celebrate the funeral rites of Hector in an honorable manner, the final attack on Troy was sudden, brutal, and total. Wandering aimlessly among the skirmishes, lost in the general panic, Priam wondered if the mountain in the western sea had exploded, as it did in the days of Mursilis, this time engulfing his lovely city with hot ash and clouds of smoke. Only the wrath of the earth itself, the rage of Gaia, could produce such devastation as he saw in all sides, he thought. Mere men were not capable of such violent excess. Unable to utter a word, Priam lumbered through the corridors of the palace, clambering over the still warm corpses of his family and militia, finally retreating to the slaughter yard littered with the bones of cows and bulls. He lay down and covered himself with wet cow dung, remembering how people had protected themselves against the exploding mountain in that time long past.

Slowly an idea formed in his mind, like a cloud taking shape on the horizon of the sea. He became convinced that he must find a hidden treasure: the skull of a sacred bull, decorated with a yellow jewel in the forehead. He was sure that he had seen such an artifact, a precious heirloom that survived from his mother's world. He could picture it perfectly, though he did not have a distinct memory of ever actually touching it. But it must exist, he believed, and at this moment, when he was losing everything of his world, he had to find it. He would go to the family altar room and search in a brass-banded trunk where he had probably left it for safekeeping, decades ago.

Walking in a daze, Priam hardly noticed the screams that rent the air around him, or the choking smoke that roiled through the palace. He entered the shrine room and went down on his knees to rummage through the trunk for the Skull of Rudra. Behind him an armed man entered the small windowless chamber: Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. He grunted in a low voice, as if to give a warning, but his next act came too suddenly to allow Priam even to turn and look over his shoulder. Neoptolemus stabbed him with a bronze sword in the soft place beneath the right shoulder blade. When Priam lurched forward onto the trunk, Neoptolemus used the support it provided to shove the sword right through the old man's body, then twisted it viciously, ripping apart his lungs.

Priam looked at his empty hands coated with glistening dung. He did not feel the searing pain in his chest, for he was searching for another feeling. He tried to remember the last time he had felt shame as intense as the hot flush that poured through him now, and slowly, like the tide of a vast sea finally turning, his memory recaptured a day by the river Scamander, and the gay, mocking laughter of women....

 

September 2008 Andalucia

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.