The Assassination in the Temple of Aphrodite

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Lais_by_school_of_Furinibøygen has the pleasure of introducing «The assassination in the Temple of Aphrodite», a short story by Barry Patrick Kavanagh, written for bøygen #3 «Etter festen».

The story is situated in Greek antiquity and features a historical person (which is rather unique for a contribution to bøygen!). It treats society’s reactions towards one woman whose way of life was considered so unseemly by her contemporaries that she was deemed «the wrong woman», and brings to the surface the gender issues which had gone unnoticed in previous tellings (whether that of Athenaeus or George Orwell). What happens when women push the boundaries of their expected gender roles is a theme that can be said to be of almost timeless interest, from Phaedra to Nora in Ibsen’s A dollhouse.

The author Barry Kavanagh has a degree in English language from UiO, and is currently teaching at the University of Oslo and Østfold University College. He is the co-author of A Load of Blather: Unreal Reports from Ireland & Beyond (Nonsuch, 2008).


The Assassination in the Temple of Aphrodite

Laїs they said was beautiful, but the ancient writers only mentioned her bosom, and the ancient painters only depicted her breasts. She knew how she saw herself, however: with dark hair, straight at the roots but curls commencing at the ears; crouching on a Sicilian hillside, staring up at herself, her expression alternately sad, telepathic, and blending with the heat and dust.

When she was dead, it was implied, enigmatically, that ‘Love was not her mother’.

Fame caught her, in Thessaly. The swish of a peplos behind a column, and a woman, a lady very recognizable from high society, was standing in front of her. A second, equally aristocratic woman sprinted towards her across the floor of the temple. A third woman, and more, appeared, in an encircling movement, like a complicated dance step. One by one, they picked up the wooden footstools that were scattered around, as Laїs, distressed, looked about her for an exit. ʿThese are good as ten swords,ʾ said one of the women. A stool was swung at Laїs, who instinctively threw up her arms. This first blow she could ward off. It hit her palms as she pushed it away, leaping backwards as she did so. She knew this altercation was about Pausanius: one of the women said they ʿwould not tolerate the right man with the wrong womanʾ. But who were they to say who was right for whom, in the Temple of Aphrodite, a temple of love? It seemed blasphemous to attack Laїs here, but strangely appropriate in a way that the vexed Thessalian women could not resist.

That Sicilian hillside was real: she crouched upon it in her childhood, looking out to sea. Laїs came from Hyccara. It is called Carini, in another language. It was a fishing village. The further inland you looked, the more hills there were. A particularly steep, barren one made you think that a force under the ground was trying to stab humanity from below. And there came a hurtful time when the people here suffered greatly. One day, Greek triremes flew in across the clear water tide. On board were Athenians, at the beginning of their so-called ʿSicilian expeditionʾ, part of the Peloponnesian War. The expedition would later bring disaster to the Athenians, but at this time they felt confident, and even victorious. They took the village, and people were considered plunder. The child Laїs saw strangers, from a doorway. She ducked inside, and backed to the wall, but in the same amount of time, the invaders walked into her home and claimed her.

The women now were edging her deeper into the temple. One strong shove of a stool, hard against Laїs’s defending arms, pushed her back against a wall. Left and right, there was nowhere to run now. She had bashed, bruised elbows. She made fists and waved them around. This display was met with smiles. The prey was cornered. The community would not tolerate the right woman with the wrong man.

The girl Laїs was taken to Greece as a prisoner of war, but through the convoluted trading of captives, she ended up on the isthmus of Corinth, among the Corinthians, the enemies of the Athenians. There was no way back to Hyccara for her, though. A life began instead for her in Corinth. It was there that Aphrodite appeared to her in a dream. She dreamt of the goddess who had won the judgement of Paris; she dreamt of a museum where an armless statue of the goddess regenerated her limbs, and transformed herself from marble to ocean foam. Aphrodite, rising in the foam, spoke these words to her, although her sacred lips did not move: ʿYou will be courted by many wealthy lovers.ʾ Aphrodite was the goddess of love; the goddess knew; the goddess spoke with authority. She was also the goddess of beauty, and of pleasure. There were other goddesses, of quite different things. Was it really an honour to be singled out by only this one god? Love, beauty, pleasure only? But honour had nothing to do with being singled out. Laїs did not know then that she – a child, poor, and a refugee – would grow to live a life that consisted mainly of offerings to that one goddess, and with the single sentence spoken to her, the goddess was awarding something small in return.

In Aphrodite’s temple, another blow struck. It broke Laїs’s left arm, and made it easy for the women to move in, and throw her down onto the floor. They laughed now, and one of them screamed something about the wrong man and the wrong woman.

It was Apelles, later famous for painting Alexander wielding a thunderbolt, who discovered Laїs in Corinth. He saw her holding a water-ewer, at a fountain. Before she had finished drawing water, he had introduced himself. He was a painter of thrones, auditoria, gatherings, and because of this he could not resist inviting the young girl to a banquet. She sat quietly among tall artists who wore carmine and vermilion cloaks. Hetairai were there, paid sexual companions who could also discuss art. The men to her were a glaring of cats, a shrewdness of apes, a cast of hawks. They laughed at Apelles because his companion was a maiden, not a hetaira. Apelles dismissed their surprise and conjectures. ʿI’ll show you within three years,’ he gaily said, ʿthat she’ll be beautiful enough for enjoyment.’ She learned that the parties were for enjoyment. The parties were for the gratification of the pleasures suggested by those who paid. The parties were for cats, apes, and hawks, but she would not long see them that way. Instead, she became a hetaira renowned for treating everyone with politeness. Within those three years, a poor refugee was transformed. Within those three years, a certain kind of fearlessness in her was complete, and the parties began.

Laїs was on the ground, but she could kick at them. One of her assailants raised a stool high, high above her head, and when it came down, it smashed one of those kicking legs. ʿYou squealing wretch… the wrong woman… wrong woman…’

Laїs became a figment of sensual pleasure. She became so famous that Demosthenes came to Corinth, just to see her. Demosthenes the orator. Demosthenes who practised his voice against crashing waves on a beach. He had his thousand drachmas ready, but when she heard that booming, bombastic voice in her parlour, she sent word out that the price was ten thousand drachmas. He left without seeing her. It was delightful to hear the complaining voice of such an important man. She slept with Diogenes the Cynic free of charge. He lived a comically simple life, with no possessions, living in a barrel on the streets. If you ask a man who has renounced all possessions to pay, he will not become one of your customers. You have to desire him as one of your customers in order for him to become one. And she did want him. The benefit she gained from being with Diogenes is that she had sex with him in the busy streets. Diogenes did not pretend that man is not an animal, and she too could show everyone that truth, in fact neither he nor she could show it alone, and their joined sweat happily rolled into the road dust. This was the meaning, she realized, of the words of Aphrodite. ʿYou will be courted by many wealthy loversʾ did not mean that wealth was the compensation for her life. It meant that the authority she attained from being courted by wealthy lovers made acts with the Cynic meaningful. ʿI’ll take Diogenes for nothing,ʾ she thought. ʿThe shit-barrel people are the best of all humans.ʾ It meant she achieved her own gratification. It meant that truth, or what she thought was true, could be her love, not love itself. She could love truth. She did not have to love love. This was the gift of the goddess.

The blows rained down. She was on her side, trying to curl up, and the unbroken arm was beneath her. She tried to raise it up, to protect her head. They broke that arm too. The seat of a stool then crashed into her face. ʿThe wrong man!ʾ was the howl.

Eventually, a passion came to Laїs, and it was Pausanias. She let him bring her from Corinth to his home in Thessaly, to the Pindus range, overlooked by Mount Olympus, home of the gods. The people wanted to know why their beloved Pausanias would live with a hetaira. Diogenes had told him in Corinth that he should become like him, a Cynic. If he was prepared to live with a common whore, why should he not complete his rejection of society, and live in a barrel? Pausanias did not see it as a rejection. He replied that whores and barrels were not equally absurd, to him. He said it is not absurd to sail in a ship in which other men have sailed before, and his action was simply to be in love with a woman with whom other men had been in love with before. They said he had a golden heart. The words of Laїs on this matter are not recorded, but she willingly went to Thessaly with Pausanius, and there she visited the Temple of Aphrodite.

Something burst. There came a strange glow, as blood got into her eyes.

There was an opinion that Pausanias was always too prestigious for his own good. It was said that the clans of Thessaly had been led to believe that favours Pausanias gave or did not give contributed to keeping the balance of prestige between the various houses. It was said there existed the possibility that he would marry one woman from one house, and the balance would permanently shift in favour of that house, and on another social level, in favour of that woman. If he gave all of his favour to Laїs, an outsider and a hetaira, it would mean no-one in Thessaly had the possibility of being favoured, and no lady could have the power from him, power that she had no means to create for herself.

The final blow, as a piece of wood got into the eyes. A splinter into the brain.

There was a bloody corpse in the temple. Laїs now lay at the feet of Aphrodite – the right woman with the right woman? Perhaps, perhaps not. The assassins traipsed out, blood on the soles of their feet, and they parted, their brief sisterhood disunited as soon as they left the temple threshold.

The tomb of Laїs is by the banks of the Pineois, which flows down from the Pindus mountains. There is a water-ewer emblem on her stone, a reminder of the life she was led into by the gaze of an artist. The inscription is a conundrum: ‘Love was her father’.