Gateway to the Classics: Three Greek Children by Alfred J. Church
Three Greek Children by  Alfred J. Church

A Family Sacrifice

The next day was to be a very important one for Hipponax, for he was to be present for the first time at a family sacrifice. Leon was descended from the old Athenian hero, Theseus; and once a year all his kinsfolk used to meet at the hero's temple (which may be seen still standing), and sacrifice a white bull. The time for doing this had come round, and Hipponax was now thought old enough to be there. Leon and he started before it was quite light, for the sacrifice was to be at sunrise. When they got to the temple, it was already nearly full of people. There was a fire blazing on the altar and a priest was standing by it dressed in white robes. The first thing done was that the priest called out in a loud voice to the people: "Be silent." (What he really said was, "Speak only lucky words"; but people thought that the best way of doing this was to say nothing at all, for they did not know what might chance to be unlucky.) Then some servants of the temple brought in the bull; it had wreaths of flowers over its neck and shoulders, and its horns were gilded. It came up quite quietly to the altar. Indeed it was thought a most unlucky thing if it made any disturbance. Perhaps the priests used to give the creature some kind of drug to keep it quiet; but if they did, they kept it a secret, for they wanted the people to think that the creature came willingly. Then one of the servants struck it on the head with a heavy axe, and killed it at one blow. This again was thought to be a most important thing. It would have been very bad luck indeed to have had to give more than one blow. Another servant cut its throat with a knife, and a third held a broad flat dish underneath to catch the blood. Perhaps you will think that this was not a very nice thing for the little boy to see, and indeed you are quite right. Hipponax turned quite pale when he saw the poor creature killed, but his father had warned him that he must not show any sign of being afraid or of not liking it. So he thought to himself it was like being in a battle for the first time, and he kept up his courage very well; and when his turn came to do his part in the sacrifice, which was to pour some drops of wine into the fire out of a golden cup, he did it with a hand that did not tremble at all. His kinsfolk all said afterwards that he had behaved very well. Then the priest said a prayer in which he asked Theseus to help and protect the house of Leon the son of Hipponax and all his kindred, to keep them safe abroad and make them happy at home. Then some of the flesh of the bull was burnt in the fire, and some was put upon spits and broiled and eaten. In old time all the guests would have had their share, and the whole animal, except the parts that had to be burnt, would have been eaten up. But the Athenians of that time did not like this way of doing it. So some pieces of flesh were eaten for form's sake. And afterwards, later in the day, there was a great feast given in the temple, at which there were many things besides broiled meat; fish and fowl, and all kinds of meat, and pastry made up into wonderful shapes of birds and beasts and ships and temples. Hipponax sat by his father's side, and had as much as he could eat of marrow, which was considered to be the greatest dainty, and therefore most fit for a nobleman's son.


The Sacrifice

After the guests had finished their dinner and the wine had been sent round, a minstrel began to sing the praises of Theseus.

I wish that I could give you the poem which he repeated; but though I cannot do this I can tell you—

The Story of Theseus

Theseus was the son of a king of Attica. The first thing that he did was to clear the country of some robbers who made it unsafe for travellers to pass through it. One of these used to lie in wait among the bushes on the roadside, and when he saw any one pass by, would suddenly jump out and kill him with a blow from a great iron club which he used to carry. So Theseus dressed himself up as if he were a peddler carrying a pack, and walked along the road, as if he knew nothing about the matter. But all the time he was looking out for the robber, and when the villain jumped out on him he was quite ready for him, caught him round the waist, and being a very strong man, threw him on the ground. Then he beat out his brains with his own club. This club he always carried afterwards in his own adventures.

The next robber that he killed was a cruel man who used to tie the poor people that fell into his hands to a fir tree that he had bent half-way down to the ground. When they were tied, he let the tree go, and of course it tore them in a dreadful manner. Theseus had a battle with this man and conquered him, and then served him just as he had served others.

The third robber's name was Procrustes. This man pretended to be hospitable to travellers, and would invite them into the great cave in which he lived, and would tell them that they should sleep in his own bed. But when the traveller was in bed, he would say to him: "Every one who sleeps in my bed must fit it," and if the poor man was too short he would drag his feet to make him longer, as he said; and if he was too long, he would lop his feet off. Theseus conquered him, and put him into the bed, and finding that he was too long for it, lopped off his head, for he thought it best to make an end of such a monster at once.

When Theseus had delivered his country from the robbers, he had a still more difficult and dangerous task before him. Every year seven young men and seven young women had to be chosen by lot to be sent across the sea to a certain Minos, who was king of Crete. Minos used to shut up these poor creatures in a labyrinth or maze, a place in which there were a number of winding paths so cleverly contrived that no one could ever find his way out again. Here they used to wander about till they were devoured, one by one, by a great wild beast that lived in the maze.

Theseus, when he got to Athens, after killing the robbers, found that they were just going to draw lots for these fourteen; so he came forward, and said: "I will be one of the seven young men; so you need only draw lots for six." Then he went across the sea with his companions, and came to Crete, and to the palace of King Minos. They would not let him take his iron club with him; but he had a short sword, and he felt sure that with this he should be a match for any wild beast. But then, how was he to get out of the maze when he had killed the creature? This puzzled him very much. But by great good luck the king's daughter saw him, and fell in love with him, for he was as handsome as he was brave and strong. She gave him a thread of silk, so fine that it could not be seen, and yet so strong that it would not break. He managed to fasten this very near the place where he went into the maze, and then he held it in his hand, unwinding it as he went. Of course he killed the wild beast, and then made his way back by the thread, and took his companions with him.

When he came back to Athens after this he was made king. They say that his old father said to him: "If you come back alive and well, let the sails of your ship be white; but if they come back without you, let them be black." Theseus was so glad to come back with all his companions that he quite forgot what had been settled about the sails. And so, when the ship came in sight of his home, it so happened that it had the black sails up. Then the old man, who had been watching for it for several weeks, threw himself into the sea. He could not live, he thought, if his son was dead.

Not long after Theseus became king an army of Amazons invaded his country. These were women who fought as bravely and as skilfully as any men. They lived somewhere on the coast of Asia, and they had crossed the sea, and marched along, conquering as they went. But when they came to Attica, Theseus met them at the head of an army of his people. While the battle was going on he fought himself with their queen, and disarmed her and took her prisoner. Afterwards she became his wife.

Many other brave and wonderful things Theseus did, but the chief reason why the Athenians so honored him was that he made all their country into one state. Before, there had been wars of one town against another, but it was never so after his time. So he was always looked up to as the Founder of Athens.

Leon went away early from the banquet. As he came out of the temple door some one put a little tablet into his hand, whispering at the same time: "Take no notice, but look at it when you are alone." So Leon did not look round to see who it was that had spoken. Indeed, he fancied that he knew from the voice that it was a Greek from Ephesus, who lived in Athens, and kept a jeweller's shop. Leon had done him some little service a year or so before, and the man was now showing his gratitude for it.

When Leon got home he opened the tablet, or rather the tablets, for there were two of them, fastened together with a silk thread. Inside these words were written: "Beware! Your enemies have prevailed! Fly while there is time!"  Leon knew very well what was meant. A kinsman, with whom he had had a lawsuit about some property, had vowed that he would be revenged upon him, and had accused him to the magistrates of treason. The fact was that Leon had always been very much in favor of peace, and had sometimes been a little rash in what he did to bring it about, though always quite honest.

He showed the writing to his wife. "I shall not fly," he said. "It would look as if I were guilty."

"My brave husband," cried Elpinicé, throwing her arms round his neck.

"But the children?" said Leon.

"Of course they will stay with us," said his wife.

"Listen to me," said Leon. "I know that what I am going to say will half break your heart. But you called me brave just now; be brave yourself. The children cannot stay with us."

Elpinicé stared at him as if she did not understand what he said.

He went on: "You know Sosilas, or, rather, you do not know him. But I know what a thorough villain he is. If any thing happens to me—and though I have never had a thought but for the good of Athens, I know that they can make out some sort of a case against me,—well, if any thing happens to me, Sosilas is the children's guardian."

The poor mother turned pale.

Leon went on: "I don't say that their lives would be in danger, though you must remember that Sosilas is next heir after the boy. But what a family! what a place for our children to be brought up in! You know Ladé, what a vain silly woman she is. Think of our dear, honest Gorgo and sweet little Rhodium under her charge! By Zeus! though I love them better than my eyes, I would sooner that they were dead."

Elpinicé sobbed as if her heart would break, but said nothing.

"Now," said Leon, "you must choose. I cannot send them away if you say no."

"They shall go," said Elpinicé. "I would sooner that I never saw them again than that they should take any harm."

"Then there is no time to lose," said Leon. "Let us take our host and nurse into council."


Leon and Elpinice

That nurse was dismayed at what she heard need not be said. But she was a capable woman, and had presence of mind. "Let me take them to Sparta," she said. "I have friends there, and the Spartans never harmed a guest."

It was settled that this should be done. The poor mother was obliged to tell Gorgo where she and her sister and brother were going, and something at least of the reasons. Rhodium and Hipponax only knew that they were going on a voyage. The poor mother kept up her heart as well as she could, while the children were wild with delight at the prospect of an adventure. And, of course, she had so much to do in getting things ready that she had not time to break down. The old harbor-master, by great good luck, happened to know of a ship that was just about to start for a port not very far from Sparta. Before dawn the children and nurse were on board. By sunrise the ship had cleared out of the harbor and was well on her way. It was not too soon, for less than an hour afterwards the archers were at the harbor-master's house with an order for the arrest of Leon, son of Hipponax, and Elpinicé his wife. Sosilas himself came with them, armed with authority from the magistrates to take the children into his charge, and was wild with rage when he found them gone.

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