Dea Thea

Simon Whitechapel

  The barbarian incursions had by this date reached an apogee of audacity, and had they continued unchecked we must suppose that, like a vasty oak eaten away within by the canker of worm and rot until it may no longer withstand the stern blast of the winter gale, Rome should inevitably have toppled, tearing half of civilization away with her, and echoing the calamity of her fall across half a world. And yet, as the perils waxed strongest and the augurs read portents of collapse everywhere, the genii of Rome, which had long brooded on the pride and iniquity of their charge, and had fallen of late, it seemed, into a cold and disdainful inactivity, roused themselves to prepare a remedy for the sickness of the city. And just as the sickness was great and fast-rooted, compounded of the vilest turpitude and firmest-fixed sloth, and stretching to encompass all levels of society, from the Emperor himself to the lowliest provincial swineherd, so the remedy was terrible. Hell gaped, and gave up her Queen.

Thus the historian Marcus Dælian expressed himself, and it cannot be doubted, for once, that the words of a man credulous beyond the common measure of his time, and one steeped in superstitions and accustomed to regard the slightest phænomena of Nature as bearing weighty portent, must be taken, it may be accepted, at some sizeable fraction of their face value. Truly, the Empress Hakathia seemed more than human; whether she were less than divine, we, at this far divide from the century of her reign, cannot presume to judge. That she was cold and cruel and delighted in torture and ensanguinated death cannot be doubted, but whether these were the magnified foibles of a member of our own kind, or the naturally præternatural tastes of a Goddess of Hell, is a question the sober historian must concede to the Heaven-aided acuity of the priest and the Muse-inspired flights of the poet.
              --Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), Chptr XXXIV.

  HACA'THIA, the name of three successive Empresses of Rome, whose reigns and individualities, at a time no less confused than it was bloody for the populace, became collapsed into a single imperium, which the laughably credulous chroniclers of the succeeding era would have us fix in length at more than a century and a quarter. Little has survived the holocaust to overwhelm, in the last days of the third Hacathia, circa 382 A.D., the new imperial capital built at Ephesus in the early days of the first, and we cannot more than adumbrate the characters and achievements of the three, who remain as nearly indistinguishable under the light of the purest scholarship as through the murk of the veriest superstition. The boundaries of the Empire were markedly expanded; its population fell in paradoxical concomitance; the vilest turpitudes of a Commodus or a Caracalla, a Nero or a Caligula, were aimed at and surpassed: beyond these scant certainties lie only chimerical speculations, amongst which we find the legend, perhaps least nugatory of those to attach to her name, that the first Hacathia was the only child of the Emperor Heliogabalus and Aquila Severa (in the lacunose Vatican ms. of Lycophorus, Julia Paula). Val. Luc. 5 c. 11.—— Ant. Gracc. 4 c. 12 &c.—— Apollod. Sax. 36 c. 2.—— Lycoph. Frag. 23 c. 38 &c. [There is a bust of Hacathia II, much battered, in the Bibliothèque Nationale.]——A rare epithet of the Goddess Hecate among the barbarian tribes of northern Scythia.
              --Lemprière's Classical Dictionary (1832).

  I am an altar thickly splashed,
   With blood-dark wine and wine-dark blood;
A reeking tomb whose door is smashed;
   A hand that holds a withered bud.221

I am a shard upon whose glaze
   The Queen has scratched the fatal sign;
The moon-pale smoke of elder days
   That melts amid the mountain pine.225

I am a cup to which Her God
   Has lowered wide and laughing lips;
A boy that waits and waits the nod
   That lifes the wetly chaunting whips.229
              --Algernon Charles Swinburne, "Hymn to Hacathia" (1867).

In the moments since the binding of his hands and feet the faces of the massed rows of spectators, towering towards a sky burning harsh, salty blue, had began to fade; and their lascivious, gloating cries grew faint in his ears. He stood, bound to a post of rough-hewn cypress, and gazed infinitely out over a plain of smooth white sand. His sweat ran hot and stinging in the natural grooves of his body: in the sulcus between his breasts; the cleft of his buttocks; to each side of the ridge of his spine; and the trickling fluid added ecstatic definition to the golden solar claws that raked the red whip-tracks on his shoulders and flanks. Upon the horizon, something moved, faint and far at first as the white speck of the psychopomp on an eastern horizon in the very barest instant before the molten rim of the sun slips blazing onto the eye, but growing closer heart-beat by heart-beat, breath by breath: a woman tall and terrible as a gallows, and striding grave-lengths with bare, blood-laved feet.


And in the moment that She reached him, and raised a cold white finger to still the breath on his opening lips, he awoke from the illusion, and threw his gaze up high to the imperial gallery, where the same white unholy face watched his, and turned not, nor dipped nor changed color as his body was feathered with arrows fired from the circling chariot of an archer who wore a blank, gilded mask, and had hair long and abundant as a girl's.

At the moment of death there came a vast churning and grinding in his ears, as though of oceans of warring ice, and his senses span and slid through vertiginous declivities of synæsthesia, so that he smelt the triumphalling of the crowd as the heavy musk of a panther's pelt; and heard the light and glitter of the stadium as a reed-piped threnody; and saw the stench of his failed bladder and sphincter as a mist that swirled and glowed upwards around him; and tasted the oozing agonies of the arrowheads in his flesh as the brine-bitter nipples and lips of a fisher-boy for whom he had lusted years before in a village on the blue Ægean coast. And the bite of the bonds on his wrists as he slumped on the post spoke a single word into his ears.


And he was dead.

There was an age of darkness. Then, slowly, like the winter-frozen fingers of a harpist new-come in from the cold, which stumble and fail over familiar strings, and gradually, in the warmth of the hall, regain their cunning, his senses again divided the sense-booty of the world and polished and presented it to him. Dead and deaf and blind, without taste or touch or smell, he perceived as he had perceived in life, though strangely, with variations of color and sound and taste and sensation and smell that he did not remember from life, but nevertheless knew, as though he had encountered them on dream-journeys or in previous existences.

And this is what he perceived:

First, planting feet wide and jerking in conscious burlesque, a stadium official dressed as the god Mercury, his eyes wide, with pupils dilated (he saw the flex and shrink of the tiny black disks though the man was many pedes away), and lips covered with half-dried purplish foam, stalked towards him, carrying in one hand an iron rod, one end of which, hammered spatulate, glowed red from long minutes on a fire of smouldering coals.

And he perceived the heat of this, and the sough and thud and churn of the man's drug-stimulated heart, and the faint crepitations of his joints, and many things besides. And the man, a world of perceptions, came up to him and planted the red-hot spatulate end of the rod upon his dead left breast with a calculating "pop" of his purplish-foamed lips.

And he perceived the searing of the metal not as pain, but as fragrance, the fragrance of a purple-flowered little mountain plant that, many years before, he face-down to the earth at the urging of his erastes, had flared world-wide in his nostrils at the agonizing moment of intromission.

And the man lifted away the rod and set it lower, upon the flat, lifeless face of his left thigh. Again, a sensation formed itself for him of the searing of the metal, the clip and rattle of the harness of a horse he had never seen but, awakened one night by the bite of a flea, had heard ride past the window of the room of the Syrian taberna in which he had been sleeping.

And for a third time, the man lifted away the rod and set it into place again, now upon the curve of his belly as it dipped to his groin. A third time, and a third sensation, the rough wayside sand in which, faute de mieux, he had once laved his hands before sacrifice at a desert shrine.

And thereat the examination was done, and the mock-Mercury was walking jerkingly away, the glow of the end of the death-ascertaining rod dulled by the skin and fat pulled away from the three slot-shaped burns upon his flesh. Then, for a time, the sand of the arena was unpressed; amongst the massed tiers of the crowd, the sellers of roasted finches, of honey-fried melon slices, of sunflower seeds and walnuts, roused themselves from their squatting on gangways and at exits and began to hawk their wares in loud, sharp voices, which fell upon his ears like tear-heavy sparks from a vast, him-enringing fire; finally, from the arena entrances, gaunt stadium attendants emerged wearily, dragging two by two fat sacks of sand, or carrying wide-headed rakes, with which the arena and its stains and marks would be sprinkled and smoothed. These workers were a week only into the drug-delayed death by starvation that waited all chosen for stadium work; the most skeletal, bodies thin as icy air, weeks into the starvation, were those who dragged away the bodies - six, sometimes, to the corpse of a small man or child.

When the sand was again clear, other attendants staggered forth and a line of posts was hammered into place on the sand facing the imperial gallery, and white-bleeding bowls of heavy incense were set on the sand in front of each post, and the victims, eighteen pale, drug-dazed youths, near-naked, were led out on chains of light, lotus-threaded silver.

Then, as the youths were slipped free of the silver chains and bound face-forward to the posts, a certain oddity in the construction of these - a hip-high, oval hole that penetrated each - was explained: as each youth was set into place, his loin-cloth was tugged away and an already semi-tumescent membrum virile was guided forward into the slot. The youths turned their faces from side to side against the rough wood of the posts, drooling wonderingly at this intrusion of reality into the shimmering phantasia of their dreams. The knots of the binding were tested, and the attendants stumbled away to their assemblage chamber (though it was not certain that the weariness of all was entirely unfeigned: there was sometimes opportunity, in the darkened tunnels that led from the arena to the cells and chambers below the stadium, for the snatching of cannibalistic mouthfuls, and the average expectancy of life for the attendants was almost five days beyond that dictated by a strict starvation, despite the awful penalties exacted on the detection of a departure from this).

The posts, the youths, the bowls: all were in place: now, from the wide, yonically arched entrance-way inscribed ZIANVA VIDAZI, the whipsmen emerged, white-robed and masked in blank, eye-pierced gold. Their whips they carried coiled for the moment in slim, agonizing hands; behind them, each with an urn hipped to the light pressure of a bare white arm, walked two tall and dark-haired girls.

The urns (he saw every detail) were enamelled in shining black, and were decorated with scenes from the thanatology of a noctivagous death-sect of transfluminal Phrygia: these had been cut in the enamel with sharp bronze, to reveal the glittering white of a rare orious marble. Beautiful things indeed, these urns, but the herbal stink that rose from each smelled to him of corpse-fed fire.

The whipsmen took up their stations, one to a post, to a youth, and the crowd grew silent as they sought out the white, death-thirsty face in the imperial gallery above and knelt in prayer upon the sand. Then they roused themselves, shaking the whips loose from their hands: slim, sleek, swift whips that leapt and cracked on the preparatory air like the glances of a witch.

The signal came, though none save them who had received it and Her who had given it knew the form it had taken, and the voices of the whips swung and deepened, for they bit now not on air but on flesh.

And from the flesh, blow by blow, they drew blood; and the blood leapt and flew upon the air, half-drizzle, half-mist, and the robes of the whipsmen were flecked and stained with its fresh vermilion, and upon the smooth blank gold of their masks it gathered and ran in long-tailed droplets that dripped and dripped and dripped a slow spreading stain to the necks of their robes.

And the two girls, who had lounged out upon the sand behind the whipsmen with limbs half-intertwined and hands shuffled through cloth to lesbic digitation, lifted cruel faces and snuffed the air like twin pantheræ, and winced and shivered with pleasure to the mordant rhythm of the whips. The slots of the posts grew tight with the full tumescence of the membra virilia even as the knots of the binding tightened to the protestant writhing of the youths, who moaned and wept slowly to the agonizing joy of the whips' unending kisses.

Then it was time, and the signal came again, at which the whipsmen stilled the blood-heavy whips, and the two girls (the index and middle finger and thumb of the left hand of each glistening with their explorations) rose to their feet and stepped across the red-stained sand to circle the posts, and stoop and judge distances and physiques, and tug or push the bowls of incense closer to, further from the purple-hearted slot of each post.

Then they walked to pick up their urns, and stepped again to the forms bound to the posts. And their hands dipped within the urns and came out closed on palmsful of the powder with which the urns were filled. Then, as though they sprinkled incense to a sacred fire, or sowed the seeds of a future-purposed nigromancy, they fed the powder to the glistening wound-mouths of two backs.

And from two slack, drooling faces burst sudden shrieks of pain multiplied beyond all endurance, which soared beyond sex and humanity to an epicene, orthian empyrean of agony in which each youth was apotheosized to a unsexed Spiritus of Torture and Suffering - and yet not epicene, not unsexed, for as the screams rose from the two gaping mouths, so, from the tight slots of the posts, two other mouths jerked and spat rhythmic cords of white fluid. And the judgment of the girls had been good, for in both cases a leaping white burst of seed splashed on and within the rim of an incense-bowl where one or the other had placed it, and there came the hissing sound of the extinction of the incense that smouldered within.

Then, abruptly as they had risen, the shrieks died away into the fertile silence from which all sound is born and into which all sound must ultimately return. And the girls stepped to other many-mouthed backs, and shrieks and seed burst again on the air, sharp and white.

And when the last palmful of powder had been sprinkled, and the last shriek had torn open the womb of silence and been absorbed (he heard the grind and shift of teeth in the mouth), and the last white shaft of seed spurted, it was evident that the youths had passed from orgasm to death, for they hung like ripe fruit in the garden of a Thanatocratora, limp and glistening upon the erect wood of the posts.

Now the whipsmen and the murderous girls filed from the arena and starving attendants were clustered thick on the posts, cutting with infinite attention and effort the cords of the bonds and slowing - they could not arrest - the slither of the released weight of the corpses to the sand. The youths were dragged from the arena through the entrance-way inscribed ZIANVA MOLDIH, each leaving a wide blood-sprinkled track behind him. The posts were uprooted; the sand, again, was overturned and raked; the voices of the salesmen in the crowd fell again on his dead, all-hearing ears: next would come... he knew not what, and could only wait.

Next, the gladiatrices: twenty-seven women armored in mail and brass and stiffened leather, armed with sword and trident and spear, and with long hair bound back in sacrificial braids. They marched onto the sand of the arena with the easy, trained steps of the soldier; all were evidently though unrestrictingly pregnant (a blasphemy mated to a blasphemy, though he no longer felt its horror in the pancathartic embrace of death). Upon the sand they formed a loose, crescent-shaped row, faced to the white face, and lifted their weapons and voices.

"Azh Ombridrighë, moldurazh ti sludãõ!"

And he understood the bastardized Latin of the region as easily as if he had absorbed it with the blood and beatings of a boyhood there.

"Ave Imperatrix, morituræ te salutamus! - Hail Empress, we-women-about-to-die salute thee!"

The line broke and three companies were formed, and again some signal passed from Her in the imperial gallery to those upon the sand, and the dance began, bare feet noisy in the sand, the creak of armor, faint suck and slap of sweat-moistened leather on skin, clash and ring of weapons, hiss of the nets of the retariæ, trained gasp and go of breath. Before him, the easy, flowing attitudes of battle, feet planted wide and swinging, arms lifting and falling, torsos turned and bent, were letters and words of a new alphabet, writing over and over again the phrases of an invocation to Death.

Death came: the drag of a foot in a kicked-up ridge of sand, delaying by a second a response, the lifting of an arm, turning aside of a shrewd, swift blow. Thus, the blow went home, a blade opening the moist mysteries of the womb; a grunt, and the woman had knelt, eyes closed and face tightened like a web, and lifted her hands half in prayer, half in supplication, and the blade had swung, hissing hugely in his ears, and her head bounced spurting on the sand. Such power, such grace was in the blow that its beauty moved him beyond life.

And now Death, a cold unseen smudging finger, was moving amongst the living letters of the invocation, touching here, here (an arm, gashed; an arm, pierced by the barb of a trident), here (a white neck suddenly leaking red, clapped at by a gloved hand), and there, in cruel play, a sudden frenzy of the fingertip (a woman beset suddenly by the shifting in the curtain of those around her by four opponents: pierced in armpit and shoulder by barbed spearheads, losing a hand to the sweep of a sword, bowing breasts and head to the triple prongs of a trident in her guts: dead).

Shortly, the sand was heaped with dark shapes, outflung or agony-tightened limbs writing new messages for him, cold unchanging messages glossed by the writhing scraps of death-expelled foetuses; already, the dance of the living was tiring, for they felt the hungry solitude of the dead and grew careless in the blows they gave and received, eager to join their sisters in assemblage on the near bank of the Styx.

Eleven were dead, nine remained; fourteen were dead, six remained; seventeen were dead, three remained, two to one, one to two, but the two who fought the one and the one who fought the two were never constant, but flowed and shifted like the smoke of three fires in a moon-inspired witch-wind. The wounds of the women were red and their breath was harsh. They danced amongst the slain. He caught no brightness amongst them: their weapons, the once-polished surfaces of their galeæ and loricæ and ocreæ, their eyes, all were dull, stained with blood and sweat and death-desire.

At last, on a sudden, the three were one and the one was wounded many times and knelt and laid herself upon the corpse of one whom she had found in three, stumbling steps, to left and right and left, and mingled her living blood with the blood of the dead.

And he hung unmoving on his post, dead, and saw all, heard all, smelt all.

To the shambles of battle, dragging wide baskets of woven flax, the skeletal attendants came, the most skeletal, and he caught the flash and thread of spittle within narrow mouths and upon lips pale as clay as they stooped and worked in the odor of fresh blood, fresh flesh, dragging the corpses from the arena, gathering struck-off limbs, lumps of flesh, heads, aborted foetuses, faintly squalling, into the wide baskets, working with dizzy, drugged sloth, dying, all of them, as they worked amongst the dead. The attendants began to drag their burdens from the arena and the crowd fell silent with anticipation, sweating in the sun. His attention drifted mist-like amongst the tiers. He counted faces, eyes, that watched the work upon the sand, many thousands, and heard breaths, heart-beats, words, farts, scratchings, shiftings, a sea of perception that his senses encompassed easily. Again the sand would be clean, would be empty, save for him, dead upon a post of rough-hewn cypress. He wondered, but knew nothing, and the white face that knew was still, silent, staring.

When the corpses had been taken from the arena to the death-chambers in the foundations of the stadium, the rakers and sprinklers of sand emerged again onto the arena, armed this time additionally with spades and bronze jars, for the stains of the gladiatorial combat were heavier than those of all that had preceded. He waited for the work to be done.

Finally, all was thus: the sand white and level and stretching from arena wall to arena wall, smooth and white and clean and without interruption. Save himself, dead upon a cypress post, the focus of many thousand eyes, eyes that blinked and eyes that were bright and eyes that were cataract-pearled and eyes that narrowed against the sun and eyes cool and wide in the shadow of calculated hands and eyes and eyes and eyes.

He waited beneath the eyes.

From behind him (he saw perfectly), the mock-Mercury emerged again, stumbling now in the fading of the drugs that had ridden his heart and brain. In his hand he carried a knife, long-bladed and curved. He walked to the post and cut at the bonds. The knots were small, tightened with sweat and blood and sun; as each cord gave away it seemed to speak a single soft word. At the last, the dead man fell forward. The mock-Mercury left the sand of the arena.

The sun was very strong.

The dead man lay black on the white of the sand.

In the imperial gallery the Empress stood.

The dead man watched Her.

She lifted Her hand and called him.

He rose and walked, and Her people were silent with awe and horror of Her power.

Top of Page