The Frogs of Brauron
By Harriet Rix
... ἐπειδὴ πατρὸς αἷμ᾽ ἐτεισάμην,
μητέρα κατακτάς, διαδοχαῖς δ᾽ Ἐρινύων
ἠλαυνόμεσθα φυγάδες ...
Euripides, Iphigenia in Taurica, 78-80
That night we had supper in Merkouri Square. Vere and I both invited everyone we knew in Athens, and so more and more people kept arriving. Finally we go to fourteen; Syrian, Turkish, Moldovan, Montenegrin, Greek, English. It turned into an uncomfortable evening: everyone was in love with someone else at the table, but no two people shared the attraction. Kornilios was openly in love with Constanta, who was talking across the table away from him, saying pertinent, intelligent things about seventeenth century Romanian manuscripts to James, who was charm itself, but obviously captivated by the golden down on Iason’s perfect cheeks. Pointless, because he was most interested in flirting with Tom, who was telling Hebe how much he wanted to paint her. She was uninterested in playboys, and was talking to Alex, balding and bearded and kind, but absent-minded because he was wondering how Lucy’s eyes were so big and blue, she who would never in the world have considered him anything other than pedestrian, but was listening to the glamour of George’s account of drawing in Afghanistan with more attention than was strictly necessary. He was talking to Snezana, blond and bored, who was yawning a little bit and looking at Vere, who was staring enraptured at Artemis. Artemis, worrying about an overdue article for tomorrow, was resting her eyes on Tarek as though he would solve all her problems, and he was looking fiercely at Elif as if to read her mind. And she? She was smiling at me.
So here we were in the heart of Athens, with an odd tension mounting, and I think that all of us at some point during this meal, loud and exciting and full of laughter, with wit flying around the table, and stories from every corner of the earth, and language play that didn’t stay with the living languages, but melded into Homer and bletted to Latin, and fourteen different backgrounds and lives of high adventure, and tsipouro, wished that we were old, and at home with tea and a book. Everyone was talking obliquely in a circle of thwarted attraction, no one was aiming their conversation precisely; it bifurcated, replying to the one for the ear of the other, and everyone was unsettled by this miasma of undertone.
Elif was a journalist with the ability to talk directly to anyone’s level. She was wearing saffron silk belted at the waist, and all the light of the room seemed to focus on her and oscillate up and down the silk in sigmoidal waves like the northern lights. The light that wasn’t caught up on her dress was caught up in the gloss of her hair, and the light which escaped her hair was focused in the gloss-black of her eyes. She looked like a goddess, just visiting, and looking at her I remembered that she had appeared something like this when we had first met in Istanbul: ambitious, somewhat implacable, somewhat ruthless, somewhat greedy, utterly admirable.
‘How did you come to Athens, Elif?’ I said.
‘I suppose because of Tarek,’ she said, smiling across the table at him.
‘Really? I had no idea that you already knew each other?’
‘Oh yes — we met in Antep in 2016.’
‘You wore blue,’ said Tarek.
I had lived in Antep too; Casablanca, they called it as a joke, because all those waiting for their part in the Syrian Civil War came—Aid workers, journalists, fighters, refugees—and everyone thought they would be there for a month, though some ended up spending their lives there. ‘I will die,’ I once heard someone say, ‘I will die in Antep.’
‘Antep! What were you doing?’
‘I was writing a piece for The Atlantic — antiquities smuggling across the border.’
‘How did you start that?’
‘You focus in as much as you can.’
‘No — I mean, who gave you the lead?’
‘A Syrian artist I knew in Istanbul told me about one particular artifact, a wooden statue of Atargatis, meant to have been one of the oldest, that had been looted from the museum in Manbij, and was meant to have ended up in Antep.’
‘Atargatis? Remind me.’
‘You know, the Syrian Artemis…’
The Romans called her Dea Syria. Associated with Astarte, Ataratheh and the early Assyrian goddesses, she was worshipped at Palmyra and all over Syria, Iraq, and Southern Turkey. She held sway over everything and her power was absolute. In places men castrated themselves for her, in places women sacrificed themselves for her, everywhere people dedicated their lives for the idea of her.
‘Her major cult was at Menbij, and some of the best artifacts were there.’
‘And then they were looted by ISIS?’
‘Yes, in 2014 ISIS captured the museum and the statue of the goddess disappeared. No one could understand it, because it wasn’t gold or pretty. It was wood, not much to look at.’
‘I remember that time,’ interrupted George from further up the table, ‘I was embedded with the Syrian Defence Forces, drawing the attack. It was crazy.’
‘God how awful. So you tracked its route across to Turkey and to Gaziantep?’
‘Yes — Tarek was my fixer, and he knew all the armed groups — in fact I think half his friends were members of one or another. He managed to put me in touch with people who had seen the statue at some point or another, and I talked to them. We narrowed it down pretty well between us.’
‘So what happened? Can I read the article?’
Elif shook her head and all the lights danced.
‘We didn’t do it,’ she said at last, ‘It was pulled.’
‘We never managed to trace the statue,’ said Tarek from across the table, ‘it was bizarre, about three people tipped us off about the same shop near the Antep citadel, and I was sure I’d seen it but when Elif went about an hour later, it wasn’t there any more.’
He looked at her and there was a brief silence. From the other side of the table I could hear Vere’s voice, ‘Artemis came to my mind the other day,’ he said, ‘as I was walking through the National Gardens.’
Tarek laughed and turned to Artemis, ‘Did you hear that?’ he said, ‘overwhelming botanical attraction... Can I have the stifado?’
‘I was really in love with him for a bit,’ said Elif, quietly, ‘with Tarek.’
‘But that could have been perfect — what happened?’
She lowered her voice and looked at Tarek from under her lids, considering.
‘Oh the usual... I was possessed and hated the feeling of dependence, the jealousy, and I forced myself to fall out of love with him, so by the time he had become keen on me I was out of love. And besides, Antep was a border town, a passing town, not a place to give to others.’
‘But he didn’t mind and you became friends?’
‘Yes — after a bit. In many ways he saved me — things were getting harder and harder for journalists, my friend Emre was arrested, and I missed Istanbul. Antep felt like another world, so barbaric — everyone speaking Arabic and Kurdish — it was a terrible exile.’
‘I remember that feeling. It was nothing like Istanbul — a different country.’
‘Yes! A different country... And in Istanbul when I met you, I had great networks of friends. Do you remember when we went to see Akın on Büyükada, and he quoted some of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms at us, and we measured the water levels in his cistern? Anyway, in Antep I could feel my life-blood sapping in that endless heat, I felt like I was performing rituals — endless rounds of setting up interviews and questioning and trying to tease out secrets, trying to get into Syria, find fixers, endless sadness.’
‘Yes, such sad stories, so many tragedies, but they sucked you in. It was as if I were a priestess of some hideous cult which would never let me go.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that it was all so important. The stories of bombing and brutality and destruction had a sort of gravity which was inescapable. I was so close to it, that although it wasn’t happening to me at all it eclipsed ordinary, happy, everyday life.’
‘The Skype effect,’ said George, ‘there’s a network of people you’ve never met communicating with you, and their stories are so shocking that you form incredibly deep connections with them.’
‘Yes. You feel like a conduit to the outside world. Three people I had interviewed on Skype died in incredibly brutal circumstances, and all their friends who I had talked to sent me long messages about it, but I had never met these people, and somehow they were just a story—at the most—all that I could do was to pass it on.’
‘Were you very scared?’
‘I tried to rent a beautiful house in the old city and then the police did a raid on the house next door and discovered an ISIS explosives factory. But it generally felt so safe.’
‘Yes — safe enough and boring if you were Turkish... But it wasn’t a place to stick, and when my journalist’s permit was revoked Tarek had just moved here to Athens. We Skyped and he suggested that I moved too — brothers in arms and fellow exiles from Antep!’
The last words fell into a silence and Tarek heard and looked across the table, smiling at her: ‘You were like a goddess in Antep. I remember you saying you felt like a sacrificial victim; but you seemed to have all power at your finger-tips.’
We both looked down at his fingers, as he picked up a sharp knife and a fork, and started carving the meat which had just come out of the kitchen. It was a small piece of venison still on the bone, stewed in saffron and vegetables and red wine, and as he cut it the steam escaped and the meat desiccated instantly. The inside was pink and the haunch still had its original form — there was a glimpse of white tendon and the end of a ligament, the glistening chalk of the bone, but you could also still see the weaving together of the muscles. Layers of life being sacrificed for a bite, I thought to myself, and started drumming my fingers on the table. It smelt irresistible.’
‘And you Tarek, why did you help Elif, when it was so dangerous?’
Tarek looked up, ‘people always ask about danger, and really it’s the wrong question. I helped Elif for the same reason I left Syria, I suppose. I was driven... From tired fiends, fiends take up the chase.’
He was quoting something, and I was about to ask about it, but it was too late and he carried on.
‘Assad killed my father; we only heard about his death in the lists six months ago, but he had been gone ten years.’
‘What did your father do?’
‘He was an archeologist. I was in my last year of English at Aleppo before I realised he wasn’t coming back, but once I knew, and had met the people planning to overthrow Assad, how could I not join in?’
‘You wanted revenge?’
‘Revenge? How could it be wrong to destroy those who killed your father? But to destroy your motherland is a terrible thing too, God forgive us.’
‘It’s not destroyed Tarek, don’t say that,’ Elif said.
‘We got rid of Assad so briefly, and we also let in the new evils; ISIS and the FSA, even the SDF which the West loves so much. My mother is dead and my sister is miles away; I’ve destroyed my family, and parted our lives’ inexorable sinew from inexorable muscle doing this. I could feel each nerve shrinking away from the others every time I thought of that, and thought about all the stones of Aleppo scattered, and I suppose I wanted to atone by restoring some tiny iota of our civilisation, snatching an antiquity from the hands of ISIS, and putting it back where it belonged.’
‘And then when that didn’t work: Athens?’
‘Antep was too like Aleppo and too dissimilar. The citadel, the honey-coloured stone, the narrow blind streets were all like lost things in a nightmare. Athens was a challenge to get to, God knows, but it feels like home.’
We spilled out of the restaurant into the square and dispersed, saying goodnight. I was staying on Vere’s sofa, and we set off back up the hill, to Xenophilou, with Tarek and Elif, who lived two streets apart from each other in Makriyani.
‘How are you getting back?’ I asked Elif.
‘I like the Philopappou,’ she said, ‘so we’ll go over there — it’s the quickest, and only this side is so dark.’
‘It is a dark night.’
We looked up at the new moon, a whip-thin penumbra, and deniable umbra, hovering next to Venus in its most ethereal form.
‘Artemis’ bow,’ said Elif.
‘Atargatis’ bow,’ said Tarek.
There was an awkwardness between them, and Elif and I dropped back a bit.
‘You never published your article?’ I said.
‘Oh no — I had to leave too soon.’
‘And locating the statue?’
‘It turned out to be impossible; there are a million places where it could have been.’
‘And was Tarek upset?’
‘Terribly. That’s one reason that I was surprised he suggested that I came to Athens; we really fell out over that story. He kept on insisting that he had been to the shop, that he had seen the statue, that a friend he trusted had told him it was there.’
I could see from the tension in Tarek’s back that he could hear exactly what we were saying.
‘And you definitely couldn’t find it? And you didn’t try to write about something different?’
‘Not a chance. I’d wasted weeks wandering about the small antique shops of Antep. And besides, would a statue like that really be any worse off in a private collection in America?’
There was something in her voice as she said it, and without thinking I said,
‘Besides, could you really have got to Athens without a little more cash?’
Tarek’s head in front of us jerked sideways and his whole spine seemed to flex with the effort of forcing his head straight again. I swung towards Elif immediately, horrified at what I’d said, but she shrugged a bit and laughed recklessly, and when we got to Vere’s house Elif and Tarek carried on up the street to the looming darkness of the Philopappou.
I imagine them sometimes now, in the dark up there on the Philopappou, with just that slivered moon. The path over the Philopappou from Xenophilou is gritty and steep, uncertain underfoot, and it is loomed over by overgrown junipers, and pine, and the broom, which has bright yellow flowers by daylight, also sits in blackness there by night. Everything is blurred. There are the remains of houses cut into the rock, Queen Frederica’s indulgence to her people, and further up, the shapes cut out of the limestone are uncertain — tombs or temples? Perhaps it was this blurring of the veil between life and death that made Tarek behave as he did. If he did.
Jealousy aura’d around the periphery of my vision as I watched Tarek and Elif disappear up the hill, but feelings do not have the same weight when you are with a friend, and Vere and I let ourselves into the house and lit candles and made mountain tea. We laughed about the absurdities, the lives and the loves of our friends, and I wrapped myself in a blanket and listened while Vere played the guitar; I Balada Tou Kir Mediou, ‘Suzanne’, ‘The World’s Widow’, then ‘Tangled up in Blue’, and I was asleep.
I rose through sleep to waking the next morning from a vivd dream about a man’s leg, landmine-splintered so that the ends had feathered almost perfectly, like a twig that had been teased apart. The ends were what I ended up focusing on — they looked like microneedles. I cleared my head and looked at my phone; it was eight AM and I had a missed call from Tarek. With a consciousness of virtue I ignored it and we drifted down the hill to breakfast. It was Palm Sunday, and after coffee and kourabiedes we went to church.
Church took a long time, and after a second breakfast we drove out to Brauron, the place where the young women of Athens went to perform the panegyria before they got married.
They would dance ‘naked or clothed’, pretending to be bears. A strange place, Brauron, where the cult of Artemis was served by Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and where the clothes of women who died in childbirth were draped over statues of the virgin goddess.
‘A pity,’ Vere said, ‘that the sermon didn’t have more about Palm Sunday in it. When Jesus travels he comes alive, just think! The Son of God on the move...’
‘Jesus,’ I said, ‘coming to a town near you?’
‘More than that! Jesus, up from the country.’
We smiled, and I realised how much I liked him.
And that triumphal sweep into Jerusalem is like the panegyria, even the donkey was infected by the excitement of the crowd, and put its ears forward and started to trot over the palms. It didn’t know about Walter Raleigh’s cramoisie cloak, but the gesture hasn’t changed — the protective elevation, the promise that you will not touch the earth. The high-born young women of Athens, dancing like bears in their saffron cloaks, must have longed for that crinkle and softness of leaves under their feet. After all, it’s a long way over stones from the Philopappou.
We were at Brauron partly because it was close to the airport, and I was flying back to Iraq in a couple of hours. As we arrived and got out of the car, looking round at the wide valley sibilant with reeds full of birds and mice and frogs, the fluxiate beauty of Greek limestone, the temple, so mellow and so dignified, I felt sick with dread at the thought of that journey.
I was going back to a military base near Mosul, which seemed to have been designed to obviate all beauty, so the presence of Artemis was reassuring, a promise that death and fighting would become something more than brutishness in time. There, on the base called Q-West, an hour’s drive south of Mosul, we would get up at four, dribble out onto the hard-standing under our CHUs in the moonlight, and eat scrambled eggs from a polystyrene dish before heading to the minefield.
The huntress Goddess, so capable that she could help her mother deliver Apollo when she herself had only just been born, so implacable that she had Actaeon torn to bits for seeing her naked, so peculiar that she tamed a wild deer and had it with her always, would have adapted to that war-degraded landscape; would have taken the gouged minarets and eviscerated bridges in her stride. She would have relaxed into her armoured vehicle as though it were a chariot, marshalled the muscles and tattoos of her six-man personal security detail into order with an autocratic air—no hint of shame—and worn Paraclete body armour like a chiton. Her ‘extensive’ hair (Callimachus), beautifully coiled, would have formed a perfect covering under her kevlar helmet, and would have shaped her hijab and underscarf into dolichocephalic perfection.
Or at least, this was the impression I got from the statues of Artemis in the little museum at the site at Brauron. As we went into the museum my phone rang. Tarek again, so this time I went outside and answered.
‘Have you seen Elif?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘why? Should I have done?’
‘No,’ he replied ‘but she’s not answering her phone.’
‘What do you need to speak to her about?’
‘I’m sure she’s fine — probably having a digital detox,’ I said, ‘everyone needs to do that sometimes. Rahat! I’ll ring her later and see.’
As I went back in I chatted to the guard a little. He was doodling and I looked over his shoulder. He was a surrealist, so on the creamy notepad of the Hellenic Archeological Association he had drawn a plane over some mountains, with a frog in free-fall coming out of it. He saw me looking and smiled, ‘just look in the marshes, when you go out.’
And there in the museum,
everywhere, was Artemis.
Artemis in relief,
Artemis painted on jars,
Artemis being excavated,
Artemis carved on a stele, tame deer by her side. There also was the wooden Artemis, the oldest of the lot, brought to Brauron from Tauris by Iphigenia. She looked like nothing, a very old stick, and God knows she would have no role in religion today.
We came out of the museum and again my phone rang. Tarek again, and I answered it.
‘I must know where Elif is,’ he said, ‘I have a terrible feeling about it. And life is so fragile.’
‘But Tarek, you saw her last. Didn’t you see her safely home?’
There was a pause.
‘No,’ he said, ‘we argued on the Philopappou, and she left the path.’
‘Oh... Well that... that will be it. I’ll give her a ring later, but honestly, I’m sure she’s fine. Just leave her to simmer down.’
We went out to the tiny church on the site of Artemis’ temple; it is dedicated to St George, hunter and slayer of dragons. Artemis would have no part in religion today, no logic in a our christian morality, that deems intent all-important.
‘How could she have behaved as she did to Actaeon?’ said Vere, ‘He wasn’t an introspective man or a particularly clever one — his gaze was captured, held, it was not by his choice that he looked and saw.’
And with that heedlessness and implacability, goes kindness. Who now would celebrate the woman as a huntress? Admittedly hunting is out of fashion, but it is more than that. Something so antithetical to having children, to being kindly; Artemis with the glamour of her deer and her cult of virginity, enslaving women, most notably Iphigenia.
Next to the Church of St George is the cave that Iphigenia had lived in at Brauron, a cramped place and unimpressive. Now that the roof has fallen in it’s just a cleft hollowed out slightly from between the rocks. How could an epic heroine like Iphigenia fit in such a small space? It gave the feeling of Mycenae and Troy VII — the tiny scale of Homeric deeds is constantly disappointing. An epic based around the minuscule domesticity of a Cyclopean wall, a string of wooden beads worn by Helen, most beautiful woman in the world...
Like Iphigenia, they had all started on a minuscule scale, one girl, her aunt, and with the extension of the known and literate world, they had expanded. Euripides placed Iphigenia on a stage, but that was not where she belonged originally. In the space between the fifth century BC, when Euripides, dreaming over his desk and scratching whorls with his pen, lifted Iphigenia from her sanctuary in Taurus and whirled her over Thessaloniki, and the third century when she was caught up in Brauron in vesture of wives who had just died, an extraordinary thing happened to her cult.
The Tragedians had reached audiences, the Italians had worsened the problem during the birth of opera, setting them all over Greece and Western Turkey, Congreve had jumped on the bandwagon and Handel had met him halfway, twisting Cadmus into a bass and playing havoc with Harmony, and each new movement and revival had repeated and sold the figures to ballooning size. How often have we developed them on their pedestals and merged them with an idea of immortality which was originally not theirs?
Now with every act of reception they bloom more, and mushroom, and I shall only ever know about the inflated, goddess figures that hover around in books written in America and Pakistan. Iphigenia, the faceless one, is left under duress as ever, now at Brauron. An interesting place—close to the action but so marginal—malarial surely with swamps like those, and quite lacking the healthy, awe-inspiring views of Arcadia, the smell of thyme that she grew up with at Mycenae, and the fresh sea and sun beating on the stone.
There’s another angle: if it is true what they say, that Iphigenia was a huntress-goddess in Tauris, who was then subsumed into the cult of Artemis, then the opposite is true. She was an idealised figure who has been collapsed into a human figure and made a plaything of the gods. Euripides makes her desperately homesick, longing for her homeland with noblesse oblige as well as a dislike of barbarianism — sad about the demise of her house as well as her personal suffering.
According to Euripides, Iphigenia was a most reluctant traveller, beyond scornful of all things that weren’t home. She is particularly angry with the fates, who
‘Wafted me. In this Taurian land to dwell /
Where a barbarian rules barbarians.’
My phone rang again, and it was Tarek once again.
‘It’s Elif,’ he said, ‘I just went to her house to find her.’
‘Oh Tarek, no…’ I said, ‘that was a terrible move — you know how much she likes solitude.’
‘No, it was a good move,’ he said, ‘she didn’t come home last night.’
At the top of the site at Brauron there’s a limpid river which soon heats up. Let’s recap its journey. The Erasinos rises from springs in the hills and at Brauron it divides and heads across the valley into brackish reed beds. One rivulet runs, fast and clear over pebbles and king cups, through the site of Brauron. It comes in at the top of the site, gathers in a pool and is swollen by a spring, and then runs under a shallow bridge, thin stones in a wide arc, just clinging together.
We walked over that fragile bridge, and after a cursory look at the later temple colonnades (unremarkable) we walked down to a small pond, and our feet left compressions in the mud. Vere sat by the pond in silence, watching bright green frogs panicking into the water around us as if it were a diamond sanctuary, and when I asked what he was thinking about he shrugged:
‘I’m not sure if I can put it into words... Look at the frogs; they relax as soon as they’re in the water, but we can still see them, and if we wanted to catch them we could... Every time I come to Brauron it reminds me of the omnipotence of the Gods. Look at Tarek and Elif, who are so certain that Athens can save them... How far is it really from their enemies? If Artemis hadn’t been on Iphigenia’s side, she would have died immediately at Aulis, again in Tauris.’
‘‘The Gods,’ they told us, ‘visit us from mountains...’’ I quoted absently. ‘But the Gods aren’t with us any more…’
‘Aren’t they? I think that until I come to Brauron, and see the stones still clinging to one another, clear water still flowing, and the endurance of that wooden statue in the museum. All I can say is that if I were Elif, and I had sold that statue of Atargatis to an American dealer, I wouldn’t climb the Philopappou under a crescent moon.’
‘You heard! Is it true? How did you know?’
‘Tarek thinks so, apparently his friends in Antep are all talking about it. And I’ve been thinking about it all today, I’m not that surprised.’
I was horrified; I knew that world, its idealism. The pictures of Artemis in the museum came back to mind. Artemis, the implacable, the greedy, the far-reaching.
Into our thoughts the phone rang.
‘It’s Elif,’ Tarek said, ‘I’ve just spoken to the police. They’re searching for her, and it seems she never left the Philopappou.’
So here by the river is Iphigenia. Let’s recap her journey. Born to Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, there’s a moment of excitement when she thinks that she will marry Achilles. Godlike, a sort of obscure cousin—even if you’ve never met him the reports sound good. Then it turns out that she’s a sacrifice—her life taken to free the Greek ships pinned on land.
At the last minute a deer is substituted and Artemis whirls her off to Taurus in disguise, and there she’s a priestess of Artemis, and her job is to sacrifice Greeks to the Goddess. Orestes, cast on the shore and about to be sacrificed, is recognised by her. She spares him. They recognise one another, and when her death seems inevitable she is transferred back to Brauron. All that senseless travel! What does it mean?
‘The site is closing,’ said the museum guard.
‘Let’s go back to the car,’ said Vere.
Orestes and Pylades met Iphigenia when they were attempting to return the wooden statue of Artemis to Greece, the cost of escaping the Furies. It was that time in late spring when one felt exhausted by all the light and promise that had existed earlier, a time before the fever of the summer equinox, when grass grows tall and leggy, and all nature pauses and takes a breath before the onslaught of full summer.
It was hot, we still had two hours before I needed to check in for my flight. We decided to go down to the coast to swim. I opened the car boot, to put my bag inside (it had been on the back seat earlier) and there was Elif. She was wearing the same saffron dress as last night; it was draped over her back like her back was an altar. And the blood, made it look as though she had died in childbirth.
Read more of Harriet Rix’s prose Pericles at Play:
Whispers of Immortality
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions: 156 x 344 cm