Thais stays at the ancient temple of Kibela-Rhea-Ashtoreth on Alexander's and Ptolemy's orders - to wait while Alexander's army goes after Darius. While the men mistakenly conclude that the temple is dedicated to just another incarnation of Aphrodite, Thais discovers that it is an altogether more dark and sinister place.
Thais breathed in the dry air saturated with scents of pine resin and wormwood. She felt sick – this never happened to her before. She was dizzy, and her breasts and belly, anointed with the blue stuff, were burning. She could still taste the tart temple potion in her mouth. Shivers ran down her spine. Thais returned to her rooms. Vaguely, as if in a dream, she noticed Za-Asht’s strangely luminous eyes and wanted to ask whether she was given anything to drink at the temple, but was suddenly engulfed in a strange kind of languor and fell on the bed among strangely-scented pillows and throws. Thais fell asleep instantly, but woke up several times in alarm, then collapsed into sleep again. Series of visions and uncommonly strong sensations, more vivid than life itself, was torturous. The bewitching ointment or the drink or both of them together brought forth sexual desire of unbearable power. A frightened Thais sensed her own body as something separate, filled with wild cravings, trapping her mind and willpower, and focusing all the powers and senses of the body in the essence of its feminine nature. The deepest hot darkness with nary a glint of light or breath of coolness, wrapped itself around Thais. She tossed around, moaned and twisted in the monstrous nightmares she couldn’t have imagined in her most feverish moments. The terror before the abyss that opened within her made her wake up several times. Thais didn’t know of an antidote to the poison given to her by the priestess. The drug possessed her, and fire raged in her body, burning from the ointment. Thais descended lower and lower in her desires, incarnating into the primitive mythical heroines – Leda, Philarrenippa, Pasiphae… The hetaera was exhausted under the burden of the dark forces of Anteros. Had it not been for her spiritual training, acquired from the Orphics, she would have rushed to the temple of Rhea to beg the goddess for release. During yet another period of wakefulness she stumbled to her medicine chest, rocking and shaking, and managed to crush a few bits of dried poppy flowers in some wine. Having downed an entire goblet, Thais soon fell into a foggy sleep with no memory and no visions…
Wind – pure and cold – flew in from the eastern plains, burst through the open door and windows and woke up a chilled Athenian. Thais barely contained a moan, feeling sore in every muscle as if she galloped for twenty parsangs without a stop. Her bitten lips were swollen, she didn’t even dare touch her breasts. Thais found Za-Asht in the next room on a woven reed mat, spread out as if in a fever. Awoken, she couldn’t seem to come to her senses, glancing at her mistress either with fear or with rage. Thais herself was growing coldly furious, as she mentally sent to the ravens the temple rituals she was so interested in and the cunning priestesses of Astarte, who purposely gave her the too-strong potion to force the servant of Aphrodite to feel the power of the Great Mother.
Silence was broken by the high priest who said something in the language the hetaera was not familiar with. The priestess stretched out in her roomy armchair and asked whether their guest would like to continue familiarizing herself with the mysteries of the Mother of Gods. Thais replied that he felt poisoned all night and that if “familiarizing” continued down the same path, she wouldn’t last much longer. The priestess chuckled both sternly and approvingly, confessing that Thais was given a too-strong ointment, not realizing that the Helenian was not accustomed to such things. They would be more careful in the future.
To delay giving an answer (a direct refusal to the hosts of the sacred place was inconceivable), Thais asked about the meaning of the priestesses’ garments and their separation into two groups.
“There is no mystery in that,” – the high priestess said, “The red priestesses serve during the day and represent the daytime powers of Kibela, while the black ones represent nighttime. In Libya and Hellas they are called Lamias – Hecate’s companions. It is thought that he who earns love of such priestess partakes of the powers of Kibela-Rhea, or Gaia as you call her. He shall have good health, luck and fine offspring for the rest of his life. The skill of the priestesses, especially of the black ones, is above anything a mortal woman can give, because it is inspired by the Great Mother and strengthened by her might.
“Can any man attain that?”
The eyes of the high priestess flashed like those of a wild beast. Thais shivered but did not drop her gaze.
“Any man!” – the priestess said, “As long as he is not ugly and is of good health and sufficient strength.”
“How do you determine that?”
“That is what the net garment is for. It is very strong and in order to take the priestess, he must rip the net with his bare hands. Only a very strong man possessed by uncontrollable passion is capable of that.”
“And what if he is not capable and can’t rip it?”
The high priestess leaned toward Thais and said quietly, “Then Kibela’s wrath falls upon him. If he chose a red priestess of the day, she calls out, and the ill-fated man is caught, castrated on the altar before Kibela and made a temple slave, if he survives. The black priestess – Lamia – calls no one. Holding the unfortunate man to her she bestows upon him Kibela’s kiss, stabbing him with a dagger here,” – the priestess placed her finger in the hollow behind the left collarbone.
“What is the sense the Great Mother places in such violence?”
“Only the strongest, most beautiful and most self-assured heroes come here to become the lovers of Day and Night. Children are born, and the girls become high priestesses and the boys become guards and keepers of the sanctuary. Have you noticed how strong they are, how long their spears are and how heavy their swords?”
“I have also noticed that your high priestesses are beautiful – one more so than the other. But is the meaning only in getting the offspring for the temple? One could find children that are just as beautiful among thousands of others,” – Thais objected.
“You are much too intelligent for someone not initiated,” – the priestess said with a slightly mocking smile (“Like Ishtar”, - Thais thought). “Of course that is not the true meaning. Human kind weakens with time, and the passionate madness of Kibela-Ashtoreth-Atargatis no longer possesses people like it used to. Kibela wants the fire of sensual rage, just as Aphrodite wants love…”