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The Night Villaby Carol Goodman
When the first call came that morning I was with a student, so I didnt answer it.
“Dont worry,” I told Agnes Hancock, one of my most promising classics majors, “the machine will get it.”
But it stopped after the third ring.
“I guess whoever was calling changed his mind,” Agnes said, relacing her fingers to conceal the ragged cuticle on her right thumb. Shed been gnawing on it when I found her waiting outside my door—ten minutes early for my eight oclock office hours. Most of my students were sound asleep at this hour, which was why I held my office hours so early: to discourage all but the most zealous. Agnes was definitely a zealot. She was on a scholarship, for one thing, and had to maintain a high average, but Agnes was also one of those rare students who seemed to have a genuine passion for the material. Shed gone to a high school with a rigorous Latin program and gotten the highest score on the national Latin exam in the state. Not shabby for a state as big as Texas. She wasnt just good at declensions, though; she had the ability to translate a line of ancient poetry and turn it into poetry again, and the agility of mind to compare the myths from one culture to those of another. She could have a successful academic career in classics or comparative literature. The only problem was that her personal life was often chaotic—a result, I suspected, of her looks.
Agnes was blessed with the kind of classic American beauty that you thought only existed in fashion magazines—until you saw someone like her walking down the street. Long, shiny blond hair, flawless skin, straight teeth she was born with, blue eyes—the kind of Barbie-looks I would have traded my dark hair and olive skin for when I was growing up. I couldnt complain though; the enrollment in my Latin and mythology classes had never been so high before Agnes declared her major. There were always a couple of suitors waiting outside on the quad when we emerged from Parlin Hall, but they had been replaced this year by one in particular: a wild-eyed philosophy major who pursued her relentlessly through the fall and then became so jealously possessive of her when she finally agreed to go out with him that shed broken up with him over spring break. I hadnt seen him since then and Id heard that he dropped out. Now I wondered if he was back. I have a feeling the torn cuticles and dark shadows under her eyes are his doing, but Im afraid that if I ask her about it shell burst into tears. And that wont do either of us any good. Were both due in Main Building at nine oclock for the Classics Departments summer internship interviews. Which is why, no doubt, shed camped out on my doorstep so early this morning.
“It was probably someone calling about the final,” I say, reaching toward the phone. “Ill turn the ringer off so we wont be disturbed.”
“Oh no, you dont have to do that, Dr. Chase. It wasnt anything that important . . .” Shes already half out of her chair. Id forgotten how easily spooked she gets when attention, good or bad, is directed at her. It surprised me at first because I thought that, with her looks, shed be used to it, but Ive gathered through talks weve had about her childhood that her father, a Baptist minister in a small west Texas town, preached endlessly against the sin of vanity. She seems to think its her fault when boys fall in love with her, which has made it all the more difficult to deal with her possessive ex-boyfriend.
“Dont be silly, Agnes, I do it all the time. Believe me, theyll just e-mail me instead. My inbox will be filled with a dozen questions designed to ferret out the exact passage thatll be on the exam. Anything to avoid actually reading the whole of Metamorphoses.”
“But Ovid writes so beautifully,” Agnes says, her eyes widening in genuine disbelief. “Why would anyone not want to read everything he wrote? I especially love his version of the Persephone and Demeter story. Im using it for my presentation.”
I smile, not just because of the pleasure of a shared literary passion, but because my ploy has worked. At the mention of her favorite poet a calm has settled over Agnes. Shes sunk back into her chair and her hands, released from the knot shed wrung them into, fan open, loose and graceful, in her lap, like one of those paper flowers that expand in water.
“Is that what you wanted to see me about? Your proposal to Dr. Lawrence for the Papyrus Project?”
Agnes hesitates and I see her gaze stray out my second-story window toward the quad, where a few students are lounging in patches of shade cast by the live oaks. Its not yet nine, but the temperature is already in the eighties and the forecast predicts itll break a hundred by noon. The sunlight between the trees is so bright that its hard to make out anything but amorphous shapes in the shade. So if Agnes is checking to see if her ex-boyfriend is waiting for her, shell be looking in vain.
“Its on the role of women in mystery rites?” I prompt. Since my specialty is women in the ancient world, Ive been coaching Agnes on her proposal.
“Yes,” she answers, tearing her eyes away from the window. “I plan to argue that the frescoes in the newly excavated section of the Villa della Notte, which was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, depict a mystery rite similar to the ‘little mysteries of Agrai, which combined Eleusinian and Dionysian elements.”
“And can you give a brief definition of mystery rites and of those two in particular?”
“Sure. A mystery rite was a secret form of worship that revealed some kind of ‘truth or doctrine only to those initiated to the rite. They usually had something to do with the afterlife. The most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which got their name because they were originally celebrated in Eleusis, Greece, and although we dont know exactly what went on because they were, well . . .”
“Yes, secret mysteries. We know they reenacted the story of Persephone and Demeter. An initiate probably relived the story of the rape of Persephone, her trip to the underworld, and then the wandering of her mother, Demeter, who killed the crops and everything growing because she was so upset at losing her daughter. While shes wandering around she comes to Eleusis, which is why the rites were there, then she goes to Zeus, who sends Hermes to bring Persephone back. Only Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds, so she could only spend half the year aboveground and the other half she had to spend in Hell—I mean, Hades . . .”
Agnes blushes at her slip, and I save her by nudging her on to the next topic. “What about the Dionysian rites?”
“We think they reenacted the story of Dionysus Zagreus, a variant of the wine god myth. In this version Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Persephone . . .”
Agnes notices me lifting an eyebrow and a little light of understanding dawns in her face, “Oh, I hadnt thought of that before! Persephones a link between the two myths! Anyway, Hera, jealous of her husbands illegitimate child, gets the Titans to eat the baby”—here Agnes makes a face and mock shudders—“but Athene rescues the heart and brings it to Zeus, who eats it and proceeds to have another affair—this time with Semele, who gives birth to a new Dionysus. In the rites, a group of women, called maenads, become intoxicated with wine and reenact the dismemberment and consumption of the god—”
“Oh no—at least we hope not! I mean there is that play by Euripides where Agave, the queen of Thebes, and her women are so frenzied they tear apart Agaves own son, Pentheus, but probably they just tore apart bread meant to represent the god and drank some more wine. Of course, if you believe Livy, the rites turned into this big sex orgy, but I think that was just prejudice because the rites were popular with women and took place at night. Anyway . . .”
As Agnes goes on to describe the Dionysian elements in the frescoes in Herculaneum, such as the presence of the traditional basket (liknon) and wand (thrysus), I wonder, not for the first time, at a Baptist ministers daughter choosing to study pagan religions. But then, casting off the family religion was no alien concept to me, and I suppose studying Dionysian orgies and blood sacrifices was as harmless an act of rebellion as the piercings and tattoos sported by her contemporaries. Still, her passion for the subject is a little unsettling. Describing the frenzy of the maenads she begins to look like one herself, her cheeks pinking, her blue eyes flashing, and her hair coming loose from its ponytail. She comes abruptly back to herself when she notices, as I do, that another call is coming in on my phone. The light flashes four times and then stops. My caller has apparently gotten slightly more determined to reach me.
“Excellent,” I say. “And now tell me why you have to go to Italy to study these frescoes?”
“Well,” Agnes says, taking a deep gulp of air and refastening her ponytail, “for one thing, the newly excavated frescoes havent been photographed yet, but, most important, theyve also found charred papyrus rolls in the villa. The little taggie things on them—”
“Sillyboi,” I suggest, providing the Greek term for the tags that ancient librarians used to identify papyrus rolls.
“Um, yeah.” She giggles nervously. “I guess I should use the Greek name, but it always makes me laugh . . . The sillyboi indicate that the library of the villa was dedicated to foreign religions—there are books on Mithraism, Isis worship, the cult of Cybele, Orphism, Pythagoreans—so why wouldnt there be one that described the little mysteries that went on right there? And while at one time we wouldnt have been able to read these scrolls because they were all burned on the outside when Vesuvius erupted, Dr. Lawrence is going to use multispectral imaging to see inside them . . . which I think is just so cool. I really think Dr. Lawrence is a genius, dont you?”
Not Agnes, too. She hasnt gotten caught in his web, has she? Elgin Lawrence has a history of seducing his teaching assistants, and Agnes is just his type—and not just because shes beautiful. He preys on young girls who are insecure. Agness father might have thought he was doing her a favor by scourging her of vanity, but he would have done better to instill a sense of self-worth in his daughter.
I open my mouth to form some sort of polite but qualified response to Elgin Lawrences claims to genius, but I am spared such shameless equivocation by the appearance at the door of Barry Biddle, Elgins grant partner on the Papyrus Project.
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