The gaggle of girls runs shrieking from the weaving room, freed from their efforts to learn the arts of spinning and fabric-making, wild with excitement at having time to play before sundown. The slanting rays of the sun pour through the open doorway and light the figure of an old woman, wrapped in a dark robe.
Little Elara hesitates on the doorstep. She looks back at the huddled figure, so still by the banked fireplace. Casting a longing glance at her friends who are already kicking a wooden ball back and forth, she creeps back to stand in front of the old woman.
“Madam,” she murmurs. “Can I bring you anything? Would you like some water or wine?”
Dark eyes peer at her. The old woman is silent for a few moments. The girl wonders if she is dumb, or addled as the very old so often are. She has been told to stay away from the crone, but her heart is moved by the solitude of the old woman, who rarely stirs from her spot by the fire, spinning endless skeins of wool into fine thread.
Finally the woman speaks. “I would welcome a cup of wine, dear girl. But I would value your company more. Will you sit with me a while?”
Elara darts a glance toward the kitchen where the women are working. “Madam, I do not dare.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “But I will bring you wine, if it pleases you.” At a nod from the crone, she runs to the wineskin and pours a cup, watering it half-and-half as her mother has taught her, and carrying it carefully back to the old woman.
“Thank you,” says the crone. She drinks, sets the cup down and adds, “If ever you have the desire to hear a tale, girl, come sit with me. But now go play with your friends.”
Elara ducks her head and scampers outside. She releases the breath she didn’t know she was holding. But the whisper of laughter underlying the creaky old voice stays with her. She finds herself wondering, throughout the next few days, about the promised tale. It feels like a tickle on the nape of her neck.
A day comes when the adult women are occupied with a birthing, and the other girls take advantage of the lack of supervision to explore the nearby hills. Elara slips away from them and seeks out the crone by the fire. She tiptoes forward.
“Madam, it is I, Elara. I would like to hear your tale, if it would please you to tell me.”
The old eyes glint. A claw-like hand emerges from the dark robes and indicates that Elara should draw up a stool. The girl complies, casting a quick glance out at the bright afternoon. But the desire for the tale is too compelling, and she settles by the crone’s knees, looking up expectantly into the creased face.
“I was an Athenian princess. Didn’t know that, did you? You think princesses are all fine silks and fancy hairstyles, and always always young. And so I was, little one, as heedless and empty-headed as you. But my sisters and I were aware of the dangers of being part of the royal family of King Erektheus and Queen Praxithea. We knew our father barely considered us, but that our mother treasured us; so we swore an oath that if one of us died of unnatural causes, the rest would commit suicide, bringing down the curse of the Erinyes upon our father. We foolishly thought that our oath would encourage our mother to protect us.
“Foolish indeed, as my father sacrificed my poor little sister, aptly named Kthonia, in order to win some stupid war or other. Two of my sisters went through with the pact. I did not, as I was already married to Kephalos and out of the palace before my murderous papa did the vile deed. For that, at least, I can thank my husband.
“And marriage to Kephalos was happy, for a time. He was besotted with me, and I loved whetting both our appetites to the point of frenzy. I even extracted a promise from him that he would remain faithful to me, and I to him. No hardship on my part―he was skilled. Don’t look so puzzled, girl, you’ll understand soon enough.
“But what I didn’t realize was that he felt there were built-in exceptions; slave boys and girls, of course, but others too, so long as they weren’t part of the Athenian aristocracy. Well, I didn’t see things quite his way. I enjoyed playthings too, when he was away and I was bored. I kept my oath exactly as he kept his.
“Some tales say that he left for eight years to test me. Foolish tales, believed by foolish people. He did go away for several years, ‘exploring’ as he called it―another word for pirating. I didn’t mind. He’d come home with plenty of gifts for me, and if he strayed the marriage bed while he was gone, so did I. Equally foolish is the story that he disguised himself as my lover, Pteleon. Men like to think that all women are as stupid as they. He walked in on me enjoying myself with Pteleon, who was not only young and vigorous, but had brought me a very pretty golden tiara as a gift.
“It was probably the sight of me sitting astride Pteleon, the crown askew on my auburn locks and Pteleon’s hands locked on my breasts, that set my poor husband off. Had we been able to spin polite fictions to each other, we would have settled back in nicely together. But with the whole household aware of the homecoming scene, he had perforce to roar and flail and publicly repudiate me. Before long he took up with a girl so lovely it soon became legend that he had been seduced by the dawn goddess herself. I don’t begrudge him his Eos. Hindsight has shown me that I didn’t give him a way to save face, and men have done stupider things out of wounded pride.
“Nonetheless, there was no remaining in Athens for me. I set out for Krete ‘for my health’ (which was more literally true than I cared to think about) and to visit Queen Pasiphae on the tenuous pretext of a largely imaginary distant relationship. Pasiphae was nobody’s fool. She took one look at me in all my youthful glory and packed me off to the temple of Artemis on the far tip of the island, a safe distance from the palace and King Minos, buried in the society of holy virgins.
“Or so she thought.
“Word reached Minos that a vibrant young priestess was hunting the forests around the Artemis temple, and he wasted no time investigating for himself. There’s some twaddle about me curing him of ejaculating scorpions and serpents, and it’s true that some of his offspring with his wedded wife were horrifying. All I did was employ a method of prophylaxis known for generations among the women of my family. A drawstring purse of thin flexible toadskin inserted…..well, never mind that, girl. Suffice it to say, we had many a merry meeting in the shaded woodlands of Krete, and no embarrassing outcomes.
“ Minos was, like my husband, besotted with me. He did give me rich gifts, and shrewdly bestowed some particularly generous largesse upon the temple and its head priestess. Eyes were judiciously averted when I was ‘out hunting’ for long stretches of time, and no one questioned whence came my beautiful bronze-tipped javelin or Laelaps, my Kritikos Lagonikos, a hunting hound of unparalleled talent.
“But all good things come to an end, and Pasiphae had spies everywhere. A time came when I perceived that it would be prudent to leave Krete swiftly and secretly, and so in due time I slipped back into Athens.
“There was a fair bit of curiosity about my javelin and my elegant hound as I traveled back home. As a lark, I told my fellow travelers on the ship to Athens that my treasures were a gift from Artemis. Since I’d been an Artemisian priestess for so long, I had no trouble making it sound authentic. I must have succeeded because I hear that story repeated still. Who knows? Maybe there’s something to it. I wouldn’t put it past the Arrow-Pouring One to have put it into my lover’s head to give me divinely inspired gifts.
“Laelaps was fiercely devoted to me. Her last act, years later, was to pull down a magnificent buck I’d speared with my javelin. She licked my cheek with her blood-stained muzzle and fell dead at my feet.
“But the fiction that the javelin couldn’t miss was based on the simple fact that I was an excellent huntress. I rarely missed my mark, and it was easily forgotten when I did.
“My years as a huntress altered my appearance. I no longer looked like a pampered Athenian princess and matron. I was lean and wiry, with sun-bleached hair and tanned skin and bright eyes, not like the soft, dull creatures so prized in the city. After passing Kephalos in the agora and he not even recognizing me, it occurred to me to play a prank on my dear husband. I cut my hair, bound my breasts and put on the attire of a young man. I contrived to meet him in the woods, me with my Laelaps and javelin.
“You’ve heard that he tried to purchase my Artemisian gifts from me? And that in my guise as a young man I demanded instead that he bed me?
“No? Well, pass by that for now. The truth of the matter is that he only pretended fascination with my javelin and hound because he was, on a level he didn’t understand, fascinated with me. He didn’t understand why he felt so drawn to the lithe hunter he saw before him, not recognizing the half-forgotten wiles I’d used to seduce him as his wife. He still couldn’t resist a sidelong glance through lidded lashes, or a particular roll of hip and buttock. He didn’t come reluctant to my bed, he was a maddened bull. When he got me naked and I revealed myself to him, it was touch-and-go whether he would mount me or murder me.
“But, as you see, I’m still here.
“Don’t look so alarmed, girl. You’re near old enough to know about what happens between men and women. What no one tells girls like you is how much fun it can be.
“Still and all, after my adventures I could not settle back into the cloying cocoon of domesticity. This time I planned better; I amassed a small fortune in small, transportable treasure—mostly jewels—in the year or so I spent with my husband. I paid well for spies to keep me informed of his activities, so I wasn’t surprised when he began a dalliance with yet another in his long string of dawn-hued beauties, his Eos girls.
After securing my hidden retirement here in this blessedly remote deme, I packed what I needed and hid my belongings and a horse near the main road. Dressed in my young man attire, my spear and hound in hand, I crept to the woodland glade where Kephalos trysted with his light-o’-love. I waited silently until the girl moved into the trees for a call of nature. In a trice I had her bound and gagged, a fresh-killed fawn left in her stead—a common bardic stand-in for dead girls— and I whisked her off into the night.
“Kephalos had a lot of explaining to do when his story changed rapidly from a missing girl to a missing wife and her missing magical gifts, not to mention the dead fawn. Especially when the girl, whom I left loosely tied near the road, miraculously reappeared with her own version of the story. I have to admire how he ended up spinning it. Making me out to be jealous of Eos, and him accidentally killing me with my own weapons, was a masterstroke of narcissism. Especially casting me as an innocent little fawn. I hear he shed real tears over his ‘mistake’. A rascal, my husband, but overall an entertaining one. Sometimes I even miss him.
“It didn’t take long for the myth-machine to inflate the tale that I had been hiding in the bushes and that Kephalos slew me in error, using my own javelin and hound. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what a gift my ‘death’ was to me. Had Kephalos known how much easier he made it for me to disappear, it would have tweaked his nose, but I’m grateful to him.
“I was surprised to find that the quiet life here suited me. There were lovers when I wanted them, and none who wanted to own me. The women are smart enough to recognize my value and a few have become friends. I worried for a while that Kephalos might decide that my death being a sure thing would benefit him, and that he would look for me. But I hear he fell off a cliff quite a few years back. Probably drunk.
“And in all these years, no one has ever heard the entirety of my tale. Minos and Pasiphae and even old Kephalos, they all have their stories, growing in color and absurdity with every passing year, but few sing tales of Prokris. And when they do, it’s only as my path crossed those of the more famous.
“But you, little Elara. You have the truth of it, right from the Slut herself. My only fault was refusing to let all those men tell me what I could and couldn’t do. They won in the end with their lying accounts of me, but I regret nothing.”
Elara sat motionless. The old woman lapsed into silence and closed her eyes. Finally the girl rose and slipped outside, just before the women returned, laughing and chattering in high spirits after the successful birth. Elara did not seek out the other girls. She meandered into the woods, looking for somewhere quiet to think about what she had just heard.
* * * * * * *
Prokris is a name that shows up several times in Greek myth, so it’s anybody’s guess as to whether she was extremely promiscuous or that there are many girls named Prokris who got conflated and their myths conjoined. Accounts vary as to whether Prokris or her husband, Kephalos, strayed first, or when and how she got her magical spear and hunting dog, or just what happened in Krete with Minos, but there are enough common threads to weave together a coherent storyline without straying far from the source materials.
She was an Athenian princess, third daughter of the famous Erektheus and his queen, Praxithea. Two of her sisters died in a suicide pact, after their father sacrificed another sister, Kthonia, in order to fulfil a prophecy that would allow him victory in battle. Lucky Prokris was already married to Kephalos and escaped their fate.
There are quite a few versions of just how Prokris and Kephalos came to split up, but whoever gets the blame, the cause is infidelity or suspicion of it. They seem to have been very much in love, to the point of swearing fidelity to each other, something most men would not have considered (and Kephalos probably had an out for sleeping with slaves, or boys.) Maybe Kephalos stayed away for years to test his wife, seduced her while in disguise and then accidentally killed her after they reconciled. Perhaps Prokris listened to malicious gossip, suspected her husband of infidelity and spied on him. Hearing him call to a breeze, not to a lover, to cool him off after a heated hunt, she realized her mistake. Kephalos heard a rustling in the bushes as she made her way to him, thought she was a wild beast and killed her. Some say the dawn goddess Eos fell in love with handsome Kephalos and seduced him, so he tried to blame Prokris for infidelity to assuage his own guilt. Maybe she fled to Artemis, who initially rejected her because of her non-virgin status, but relented and gifted her with a javelin that always found its mark and a hunting dog who always brought down its prey. Others say she made her way to Krete, where she cured Minos of a particularly nasty genital issue that caused him to ejaculate scorpions and snakes, and that he was the one who gave her the nice presents.
Sophokles wrote a play entitled ‘Prokris’ which would have given us a cohesive narrative, but, sadly, it is one of many of his plays which has been entirely lost.
One thing is certain, no matter which version you pick, and that is the ongoing theme in Greek myth of women’s fidelity being both ever-suspect and of supreme importance. Prokris gains a slight advantage over many of her promiscuous mythic sisters in that in at least a few versions she doesn’t die horribly.
But some authors just couldn’t resist. Pherekydes of Athens in the oldest source available, and the prolific Ovid (who wrote her story twice and killed her off each time), both claim that poor Kephalos unwittingly spears his wife, sometimes with the very javelin she gifted to him, and that she dies in his arms.
Just as good Greek women are supposed to do.
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, Chapter 89 ‘The Loves of Minos.’
Women of Classical Mythology by Robert E. Bell, Pages 381 and 382.