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Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Importance of Being Pretty - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

In Greek mythology, Helen of Sparta was the most beautiful woman on earth and ancient Greek literature likewise often attributed particular beauty to Spartan women. Yet while no other historical Spartan woman is more quoted than Gorgo, the wife and queen of Leonidas, no source attributes particular beauty to her -- leading me to suspect she was not.  In the following excerpt from "A Peerless Peer" I describe Gorgo's discovery that she is not particularly pretty and what it means for the Agiad princess. 

Gorgo was seven when she was confronted by the fact that she was not considered pretty. The priestesses from the shrine to Helen at Therapne had all the girls between the ages of seven and fourteen muster on the Dancing Floor in order to select which ones would take part in the Heleneia this year. The selected maidens would be garlanded in flowers and walk in the procession, followed by flower-studded straw chariots carrying the prettiest maiden from each of the five villages of the city, to the shrine. There were usually twenty girls chosen as “flower girls,” and Gorgo was eagerly looking forward to taking part now that she was at last old enough. It never occurred to Gorgo that she might not be chosen; but when the priestesses walked along the rows of eager and expectant girls, pointing a finger at the girls they found worthy, they walked past her without a glance. The look on their faces was indifferently dismissive—as if she were no more worthy of consideration than a mule among horses. Gorgo was stunned.

She ran to the fountain house, clambered up on the stone trough, and gazed at her reflection in the water. But her image was shattered by the next helot girl who plunged an amphora into the water to fill it. She ran out again, starting for home, but at the agora she paused to look at her reflection on the burnished bronze face of a massive hoplon hung up for sale. Her face was distorted in the hammered, convex surface, and she ran on, frightened. She reached the Agiad royal palace by the back entrance and scampered into the stable yard, deftly dodging the men offloading hay from a wagon in the alley and ducking under the belly of one of her father’s chariot horses, who was being groomed at a spot that blocked her path to the kitchen stairway.

“You’re old enough to know better than that!” the startled groom scolded, frightened to think what would happen if the king’s precious child were kicked by the powerful beast. Fortunately the stallion was dozing contentedly in the sun, only barely interested in flicking at flies with his tail.

Meanwhile, Gorgo was already halfway up the stairs and running (now a little breathlessly) down the corridor of the helots’ quarters toward the inner courtyard and the private dwellings of the royal family. “Mama! Mama!” Gorgo called as she skidded around the corner into her mother’s chamber.

“Hush!” her mother admonished angrily. “You’ll wake your baby brother!” Her mother, as usual, was hanging over the cradle of her youngest child. Gorgo had lost two younger siblings already: one when he was a toddler and the other when he was just a few weeks old. The latter had been so sickly that everyone shook their heads and whispered that the elders wouldn’t accept him anyway. Now there was another baby brother in the cradle, and Gorgo found it hard to take an interest in him. To her he did not look any different from the others, red andwrinkled and squalling all the time. She did not really think he would live very long, either, so why should she pay him much attention? Obedient to her mother, however, she lowered her voice and whispered loudly, “Mama! They didn’t pick me.”

“For what? What are you babbling about?”

“To be a flower girl!” Gorgo insisted, utterly uncomprehending how her mother could forget something as important as this. “For the Heleneia!”

“Oh, that! I thought I told you not to bother? Besides, this year Demaratus will be making the sacrifice. It wouldn’t be seemly for you to be among the maidens in the procession.”
Gorgo frowned. She understood about the eternal rivalry between the two royal families of Sparta, and that it was important never to suggest that the rival line had some sort of precedence over her own house; but her mother was missing the whole point. “But mother, they didn’t even want me!”

“Of course not; something like that is only for pretty girls. Why, even that hussy Percalus did it.” Percalus was the Eurypontid queen, and Gorgo’s mother hated her with a bitterness that far exceeded the everyday rivalry between the Agiad and the Eurypontid rulers. As soon as the name Percalus arose in connection with the flower girls, Gorgo knew she would get no sympathy from her mother; so she gave up and ran down the hall to her grandmother’s chamber.

She was relieved to find her grandmother at her loom. Chilonis was an active woman and often away from the palace during the day. “Grandmama!” Gorgo called out as she rushed to fling herself at her grandmother, certain of a receptive hug.

Chilonis was caught a little off guard by the unexpected arrival of her granddaughter, but she managed to open her arms just in time. The impact of the seven-year-old was enough to almost knock her off the stool, however, and she found herself admonishing the child, “Not so rough! You’re too old for that!”

But Gorgo felt her grandmother’s warm arms close around her skinny body, and she knew the older woman was not really angry with her. She ignored the scolding, looked up into her grandmother’s square face, and pleaded hopefully, “Grandmama, I’m not ugly, am I?”

“No, of course not,” Chilonis assured her firmly. “Have some of the boys from the agoge been teasing you or something?” Chilonis, confident that this was just a childhood misunderstanding, even dropped her arms and turned back to her loom.

“It wasn’t the boys,” Gorgo told her urgently. “It was the priestesses of the shrine of Helen. They didn’t even look at me—for the flower girls for the Heleneia!” Gorgo’s distress, as well as her words, drew her grandmother’s attention back to her. She was looking up at her grandmother with wide-set eyes, and Chilonis registered that the child understood fully the difference between the taunting of children and the judgment of grown women. She sighed and took Gorgo back into her arms.

Gorgo understood that, too. It meant it was true: she was ugly. She clung to her grandmother in fright. She knew it was terrible for a girl to be ugly. Hadn’t her mother become queen because she was the prettiest maiden in Sparta at the time? And the same was said of Queen Percalus—that she was the prettiest maiden of the next “crop,” so pretty that King Demaratus had taken her without a dowry.

Chilonis could read Gorgo’s thoughts, and she freed one hand to ruffle the top of Gorgo’s head of unruly bright-red hair. “It’s all my fault, Little One. You take after me.”

Gorgo frowned and looked up in indignation. “But you’re not ugly!”

Chilonis smiled faintly. “Thank you, but that’s not what your grandfather thought. Your grandfather would not have been half so reluctant to take me to wife if he had found me more attractive. And had I been a beauty like your mother or Percalus, then he would no doubt have visited my bed more often—no matter how difficult his first wife, Taygete, made life for him at home. No, my child, there is no point denying it: I was never considered a beauty, and you seem to have taken after me rather than your own lovely mother.”

Gorgo, still frowning, thought about that. She had never thought of her grandmother as in any way deficient. She certainly wasn’t ugly the way some old women were. She was not pock-marked, she had all her teeth, and she had no warts or birthmarks or other deformities. She had a pleasant face and hair the color of bay horses, now streaked with gray. Gorgo did not think it was so bad taking after her grandmother, if it meant she was like her in other ways as well. “Am I as clever as you are, too, Grandmama?”

Chilonis laughed at that and ruffled her hair again. “You are twice as clever as I ever was, child.”

Gorgo broke free of her grandmother’s arms, but only in order to be able to face her more firmly. “Don’t make fun of me!” she demanded, frowning more fiercely than ever. “Papa says you can write poetry and do geometry and read the language of the Egyptians!”

Chilonis laughed again. “I tried to learn hieroglyphics from an Egyptian merchant one winter, but without much success, I fear. And I can teach you geometry if you like, but it was my mother who was really clever at mathematics. She was a student of the great scholar Pythagoras.”

“Daddy says all his brains come from your side of the family,” Gorgo insisted, still trying to come to terms with not being pretty, talking herself into being proud that she took after her not-pretty grandmother.

Chilonis understood, and so she did not contradict this statement. Instead, she suggested that Gorgo and she go out for an excursion. Gorgo eagerly agreed.

It was a hot, sunny day and the air over the city was laden with fine dust: stirred up by the supply wagons trundling through the narrow lanes, kicked up by the herds of boys at play, and blown in desultory clouds from the drill fields across the river. Chilonis turned the chariot away from the river and headed north, past the ball field surrounded by its moat and plane trees. She took the northwest road leading gently up into the narrows of the Eurotas valley. As Chilonis drove she explained to her granddaughter, who had fallen silent and appeared to be brooding again, “The fate of pretty women is not always pretty. Take the most famous of all Spartan princesses, Helen. When she was still a girl, she was abducted by Theseus and had to be rescued by her brothers. Then she was coveted by so many men that her father held a contest among her suitors to auction her off to the one who found his favor. Because of her irresistible beauty she was abducted yet again, this time by a foolish foreign prince, and held captive for ten years in Asia. Even if she was, as some say, seduced rather than abducted, she must still have suffered to see the horrible war she caused. 

"In contrast, her less attractive cousin, Penelope, was courted by and married to the good Odysseus, the man of her own choice. You see,” Chilonis continued, as she drew up the chariot before a small and ancient monument showing a woman wrapped in a himation, “it is said that on this very spot Penelope pulled her shawl up over her head to indicate to her pursuing father that she went willingly with Odysseus.”

Gorgo stared with new interest at the ancient statue in the shade of the simple Doric temple. “Is that how our custom of stealing brides started?” she wanted to know.

Chilonis smiled, pleased by the notion. “Yes, maybe. I don’t think anyone knows, but it could go back to Penelope. After all, Helen was given to the man of her father’s choice and then turned adulterous—whether by force or free will. Penelope married the man of her own choice and was true to him—a much more Spartan pattern.” This said, she clicked her tongue to the team, and they continued on their way out of the city into the surrounding well-cultivated countryside. …

Gorgo seemed to consider everything very carefully, her brows drawn together in concentration. Then she nodded solemnly. “You don’t act unhappy. And I cannot change it, can I?” She looked up as if hoping for one last promise of things getting better.

Chilonis shook her head and laid a hand on her granddaughter’s fragile shoulder. “No, you cannot change the color of your hair or your eyes, nor can you make your mouth small and full and red. You will never be a great beauty; but if you have the sense to know that a woman is more than a fa├žade and that her value is not in the beauty of her exterior but in the soundness of her mind, body, and character, then you will discover that men who share these qualities—like the good Odysseus—will recognize those qualities in you.”