It’s not true, what they say. They blame The Minotaur but I looked elsewhere, even long after I had left my city with the man who then abandoned me, sailing his careless way, forgetting (or so they would say) to signal his success, flying the black sail instead. His father, believing his beloved son dead, threw himself from the city walls. What was it about him that made people love him so, when all he wanted was to fill his endless hunger for daring and adventure?
They were all like that, all the men in that part of my story. My father, who built the labyrinth to hold the monster of his own making. Daedalus, the engineer who designed it, imprisoned there with his son for having failed to make it impregnable. Icarus, caught up in the daring all around him, forgetting reason itself.
What makes men think they can outwit the gods? What blinds them to the rhythms of the earth, and makes them set their ambition above all else? Can they not feel Earth-Shaker rumbling warnings?
My mother taught me differently. She trained me as a priestess, to know the ways of snakes. From her I learned to find the shrines of the island, to know who lived in them and how to pay them honor. We tended the cave where Zeus was born and there she taught me to use herbs to ease the times of women. On the mountain peaks I learned to call the wild cats to me.
In the end my mother’s potions did not protect her. My father, Minos the king, had a prize bull. It had been meant as an offering to Poseidon but he kept it. To hide his greed he lured my mother, entrancing her into an obsession. She demanded that Daedalus invent an alluring disguise that would entice the bull. And whether by the bull or by the rakish architect, my mother conceived my half-brother, who came, innocent, into a world of seething desires and murderous ambitions. My father put it about the boy was monstrous and that no sacrifice was too great to satisfy him. So he demanded tribute: the youth of Athens to feed the creature, to dance before the gods. My half-brother threatened them only in story but the story sufficed. I weep now to think how my father wove together sex and violence, and called it glory.
I watched them come, the young dancers, their lithe bodies gleaming in the sun. As princess of the palace I greeted them. But I also nursed them of their wounds when they were carried from the bull ring. I knew how to place my hands to knit torn flesh. I knew also how to breathe them out of this world and into the next. I was priestess of healing and of death.
I was priestess also – and this they all forgot – of the island itself. Called from the sea by Poseidon, it lay rocky, hot, and wild, the largest of many islands the god had scattered across the stormy sea. One that lay within sight smoked by day and glowed red against the sky at night. Our vineyards produced grapes that turned into thick dark wine tasting of honey and ash. This we drank with goat grilled on spits or octopus pulled from the water as the dolphins leaped beyond. We were always within a moment of disaster; you could taste it in our food. Fire, water, rock – we lived them, ate them, breathed them. But so long as the olives burst with oil, the nets filled to breaking with fish, we crowded the streets. We sang the exploits of the dancers as they leapt the horns of the bulls. So long as the wine flowed we let them die.
I knew when it had gone too far. Watching the signs I could see truth and honor give way to deception and greed. As the young Athenians were led off the ships and the caskets of gold delivered to the palace I could feel displeasure, deep within the earth. At night I paced the stone corridors, lit with flickering torches. I ran to the temple room to listen to the restless rustling of the snakes. The Old One raised her head in greeting but had nothing to comfort me. There is a Fate that cannot be undone except as it is decreed.
When the Athenian, Theseus, arrived I was enchanted. His swagger and his bold look dazzled me. I am not ashamed to admit his body thrilled me. It might have been enough to cause me to forget my purpose but I did not. A doom lay on my city, this I knew from reading the signs in every place I walked. Whatever it had become, the creature in the labyrinth could no longer be contained. The festivals had grown frenzied, the people all complicit, and no amount of tribute would suffice. If I could get to Athens, perhaps I could find Athena there, call her back to the island of her birth: Gray-Eyed Athena, Athena the Wise, Athena Victorious.
So I yielded to Theseus’ words, sweet and smooth as ripe melons. The storytellers would say I fell in love with him but that was to account for what I did. Perhaps it was true. But I also kept my head enough to make a bargain: I would give him the secret of the labyrinth and he would take me with him back to the land beyond the islands.
That part happened as they say: I gave him the secret, he found his way to the center of the labyrinth and returned. Did he kill my brother? Even now I do not know. I know only that he returned, pulled me by the wrist to the ship, and sailed without a word. I walked the decks alone, watching my home slip away onto the horizon, until we reached Naxos where he landed to find water and to hunt. I walked a little inland on a stony path, listening. From deep within the rocks to the south I heard him again, Earth-shaker. When I returned to the ship, it had gone.
Much later they would say I was so distraught I killed myself. Instead I found a little cave and slept as restlessly as the earth. There I stayed, gathering wild herbs and grapes from the nearby vineyards to sustain me. In time wild goats approached me timidly and from their milk I made a soft cheese that tasted of oak.
There he found me – Dionysus, god of wine, of enthusiasm, of life. He courted me there on the stony hillsides, with a calm assurance, as though I was there by some prior arrangement. I welcomed him and he filled me full, intoxicated me. We lay under the stars among the vines. I gazed into the heavens and forgot Theseus, Athena, Earth-shaker and all.
I walked the land until I knew it. I found the snakes and marked the seasons. As my belly grew I turned my thoughts to my home, which I could still see across the glittering blue of the sea.
I could not know, although I guessed, that in his rage Minos had imprisoned Daedalus together with his son within the all-consuming labyrinth. But I knew Daedalus. He would not be content to sit for long without inventing an escape – certainly for his son. He could not find his way out as Theseus had for Minos would have set guards at the gates. The only escape would be to fly. Once again his invention worked. The wax wings carried them beyond the walls and out over the water. But who can explain the human heart? Daedalus would have warned him but Icarus, daring, flew too high, too close to the sun. The wax wings melted and he fell into the sea.
I saw it, as I stood in the doorway of my home. Something caught my eye – a glint, a flicker, like a shooting star at midday. “What was that?” my husband asked. “I have no idea,” I replied, but I knew. No one escapes from Crete now. There are too many secrets and I know them all. Daedalus may have thought he could evade Minos, but he forgot to reckon with Poseidon who still had not received his gift. When Icarus fell into the sea, did Daedalus know? Did he know that there is always a price to be paid?
And so Naxos became my home. When I left Crete, though, my line came to an end. The threshing floors grew quiet, the bull dancers gone. Soon Earth-shaker pulled down the massive palace walls, buried the art, the gold, the ambitions, all. But if there was a lesson to be learned, a warning heeded, that was buried, too, for later times would wonder if it had ever happened at all.