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Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, [1932], at

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Chapter One


THE temple of Aphrodite-Astarte was erected outside the gates of the city in an immense park full of flowers and shadowy places where the water of the Nile, brought through seven aqueducts, nourished at all seasons a prodigious verdure.

This flowering forest at the edge of the sea, these deep brooks, these lakes, these somber fields, had been created in the desert more than two centuries before by the first of the Ptolemies. Since then, the sycamores planted by his orders had become gigantic; under the influence of the fecund waters the lawns had grown into meadows, the pools had enlarged into lakes; from a park Nature had evolved a vast region.

The gardens were more than a valley, more than a region or country; they were a complete world enclosed by boundaries of stone and ruled by a goddess, the soul and center of this universe. All around rose a circular terrace, eighty stadia long and thirty-two feet high. This was not a wall, it was a colossal city made of fourteen hundred houses. An equal number of priestess-courtesans inhabited this sacred city and represented in this unique place severity different nationalities.

The plan of these sacred houses was uniform and as follows: the door, of red copper—the metal dedicated to the goddess—

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bore a knocker and striking-plate shaped symbolically; and beneath was engraved the name of the occupant with the initials of the usual phrase:

Ω. Ξ. Ε.
Π. Π. Π

On each side of the door opened two rooms in the form of shops; that is to say: without a wall on the side of the gardens. That on the right, called "the exposed room" was the place where the bedecked priestess reposed upon a high seat at the hour when the men arrived. That on the left was at the disposition of visitors who wished to pass the night in the open air without, however, sleeping on the grass.

Through the opened door a corridor gave access to a vast, marble-paved court, the center of which was occupied by an oval pool. A peristyle shaded this great spot from light and protected by a zone of coolness the entrance to the seven rooms of the house. At the back rose the altar which was of rose-granite.

Each woman had brought from her own land a little idol of the goddess, and, placed upon the domestic altar, she adored it in her own tongue without ever understanding the others. Lakmi, Ashtaroth, Venus, Ishtar, Freia, Mylitta, Kypris; such were the religious names of their deified Pleasure. Some venerated her under a symbolic form; a red boulder, a conical stone, a great spiny shell. Most of them set up on a pedestal of soft wood a coarse statuette with thin arms, heavy breasts and excessive hips. They laid at its feet a branch of myrtle, strewed the altar with rose leaves, and burned a grain of incense for each prayer that was granted. It was

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the confidant of all their sorrows, witness of all their labors, supposed source of all their pleasure. At their death it was put into their fragile little coffins as a guardian of their entombment.

The handsomest of these girls came from the kingdoms of Asia. Every year, vessels which brought to Alexandria the presents of tributaries or of allies, disembarked, with the bales and the leathern bottles, an hundred virgins chosen by the priests for the service of the sacred garden. These were Mysians and Jewesses, Phrygians and Cretans, girls from Ecbatana and from Babylon, from the shores of the Gulf of Pearls and from the sacred banks of the Ganges. Some were white of skin, with medallion-like faces and firm bosoms; others, brown as the earth under the rain, wore golden circles in their nostrils and shook dark masses of short hair upon their shoulders.

Some came from farther yet, little beings, slender and slow, whose language no one knew and who resembled yellow monkeys. Their eyes lengthened toward the temples; their straight black hair was fantastically dressed. These girls remained all their lives timid as lost animals. They knew the pretenses of love but refused to kiss. Between visitors they might be seen playing together, and, seated upon their little feet, amusing themselves childishly.

In a separate meadow the blond and rosy daughters of the North lived in a troop, lying upon the grass. There were Sarmatians with triple plaits, with robust limbs and square shoulders, who made themselves crowns with branches of trees and wrestled to divert themselves; Scythians, flat-nosed, full-breasted, hairy; gigantic Teutons who terrified the Egyptians by their hair—pale as that of old men—and with flesh softer than that of children;

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[paragraph continues] Gauls with hair red as that of cattle, who laughed without cause; modest young Celts with sea-green eyes.

Elsewhere, the brown-skinned Iberians met during the day. They had masses of heavy hair that they dressed cleverly. Their firm skins and strong physiques were much fancied by the Alexandrians. They were chosen for dancers as often as for mistresses.

Under the wide shadow of the palms dwelt the daughters of Africa: the Numidians veiled in white, the Carthaginians draped with black gauzes, the Negresses enveloped in multicolored costumes.

There were fourteen hundred.

When a woman entered there she never went forth again until the first day of her old age. She gave to the temple the half of her gains and the rest sufficed for her repasts and her perfumes.

They were not slaves, and each one actually possessed one of the houses of the terrace; but all were not equally popular, and the luckiest ones often found means to buy neighboring houses which their inhabitants sold in order to save themselves from starvation. These latter then transported their statuettes into the park and sought an altar made of flat stone, in a corner which they left no more. The poor merchants knew this and preferred to visit those who dwelt thus exposed to the wind upon the moss near their sanctuaries; but sometimes even these men did not present themselves, and then these poor girls united their miseries in couples—devoted friendships which became lasting love, households where all was shared, to the last woolen rag, and where alternating complaisances consoled for long chastities.

Those who had no woman-friends offered themselves as voluntary slaves to their more fortunate comrades. It was forbidden that

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these should have in their service more than twelve of the poor girls; but twenty-two courtesans were known who had attained the maximum and had chosen a variegated household from among all races.

If by chance a woman had a son, he was brought up in the temple close to the contemplation of the perfect form and to the service of his divinity. If she were delivered of a daughter, the child was born for the goddess. The first day of her life, her symbolic marriage with the son of Dionysos was celebrated. Later she entered the Didascalion, the great monument-school where the young priestesses learned, in seven classes, the mysteries of the temple. The pupil chose at will the day of her initiation because an order of the goddess must not be thwarted; this day she was given one of the little houses on the Terrace, and some of these young pupils were counted among the most indefatigable and the most often visited.

The interior of the Didascalion, the seven class-rooms, the little theater and the peristyle of the court were ornamented with ninety-two frescoes which summed up the teachings of love. They were the work of a man's entire life—Cleochares of Alexandria, disciple and natural son of Apelles, had finished them, dying. Recently Berenice the queen, who was much interested in the celebrated school and had sent her young sisters there, had ordered from Demetrios a series of marble groups to complete the decoration; but until now only one had been placed, in the children's class.

At the end of each year, in the presence of all the assembled courtesans, a great competition took place which excited an extraordinary emulation in this crowd of women, for the twelve

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prizes awarded gave the right to the most supreme glory of which they could dream: the entry into the Cotytteion.

This last monument was enveloped in so many mysteries that a detailed description of it cannot now be given. We know only that it was included in the garden and that it had the form of a triangle whose base was a temple of the goddess Cotytto, in whose name fearful, unknown ceremonies were performed. The other two sides of the monument were composed of eighteen houses. Thirty-six courtesans dwelt there, so sought by rich suitors that they would by no means accept less than two minæ; they were the Baptes of Alexandria. Once a month, at the full moon, they gathered in the close of the temple, maddened by exciting beverages and girt in ritual costumes. The eldest of the thirty-six had to take a mortal dose of the terrible philtre. The certainty of her speedy death made her attempt without fear all the dangerous excesses before which the living recoil. Her body, everywhere foaming, became the center and the model of the whirling orgy; in the midst of long yells, cries, tears and dances the other women embraced her, toweled her with their hair and joined madly in the uninterrupted spasm of this furious agony. Three years these women lived thus, and at the end of the thirty-sixth month such was the intoxication of their end.

Other less venerated sanctuaries had been raised by the women in honor of the other names of the many-formed Aphrodite. There was even an altar consecrated to the Uranian, who received the chaste vows of sentimental courtesans; another to the Epistrophia who brought forgetfulness of unhappy loves; another to the Chryseia, who attracted rich lovers; another to the Genetyllis, who protected young girls; another to the Coliade, who approved

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strong passions, for all that touched love was piety for the goddess. But the special altars had efficacy and virtue only in regard to small desires. They were served from day to day, their favors were quotidian and their commerce familiar. The successful suppliants placed simple flowers upon them; those who were not gratified soiled them. They were neither consecrated nor kept up by the priests and in consequence their profanation was not punishable.

Quite otherwise was the discipline of the temple.

The Temple, the High Temple or the High Goddess, the holiest place in all Egypt, the inviolable Astarteion, was a colossal edifice three hundred and thirty-six feet in length, elevated upon seventeen steps at the height of the gardens. Its golden doors were guarded by twelve hermaphroditic hierodules, symbols of love and the twelve hours of the night.

The entrance was not turned toward the East but in the direction of Paphos, that is to say, toward the north-east; the rays of the sun never penetrated directly into the sanctuary of the great nocturnal Immortal. Eighty-six columns sustained the architrave; they were tinted with crimson to half their height, and the upper parts disengaged themselves from these red vestments with an ineffable whiteness like the torsos of standing women.

Between the epistyle and the corona, the long girdling ornamental zoöphoros unrolled its love myths of the fabulous beasts. Centaurs were there with stallions, goats with thin satyrs, naiads, stags, Bacchantes, tigers, lionesses, gryphons. The great multitude of beings hurtled thus onward, passionate, divine, creative, awake to the first stirring of life. The crowd of obscure couples ranged somewhat by chance about a few immortal scenes: Europa with the Olympian bull, Leda with the swan. Farther along, Glaucos

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expired in the arms of the siren; the god Pan embraced a hamadryad with flying hair; the Sphinx approached the horse Pegasus —and, at the end of the frieze, the sculptor himself was figured before the goddess Aphrodite, modeling, from her own person, in soft wax the contours of a perfect cteis, as though all his ideal of beauty, joy and virtue had long since taken refuge in that precious and fragile jewel.

Next: Chapter Two. Melitta