The Waters of Sul
On his way to Britain, the Greek, Demosthenes, broke his journey in Rome. Because he was a priest of Orpheus in his homeland, the Orphic community in Rome, some of whom were Greeks themselves, warmly welcomed him. One, an old friend, Spiros, took him into his own home and prepared a feast for him.
"What makes you go to such a distant and barbaric place?" he asked when told that Demosthenes was on his way to the British Isles. "The people have not been civilized for long and I hear they are quick to rebel most savagely. Besides, the climate is perpetually moist and cold. Stay with us! We have need of more Greeks in Rome."
"I cannot. Orpheus himself has told me to go."
Spiros looked at him in surprise. Like many priests, he told his flock that the god would speak to them � but never really expected it to happen.
"How did he speak? When? Are you sure it was Orpheus him-self? You know there are a lot of mischievous spirits around just waiting for a gullible mind."
"I was at Epidaurus. I was ill. So ill I could barely walk, and my friends took me to the sanctuary of Aesculapius. There I slept in the dream cells over the snake pits and there it was that Orpheus came to me."
Spiros, whose first questions had been prompted by scepticism, sat up and looked at his friend�s face closely. It was clear that whatever had happened, Demosthenes, who was no gullible fool, truly and deeply believed he had encountered the god Orpheus. It was clear also that he did not want to expand on what he had already said.
Spiros waited expectantly for a few moments and then demanded to know more.
"You mean you saw Orpheus in a dream?"
Demosthenes hesitated before he answered.
"No. I saw him."
"But you were dreaming? You were in the dream cells."
"At first I did dream. I dreamed of hot water springing from the rock. I dreamed of bathing in it and all my aching limbs finding relief. I dreamed of Aquae Sulis in Britain."
"How do you know?"
"You thought... you suspected... you didn�t know. All hot springs look the same!"
"It was the buildings around it � the landscape beyond it. The statue of Sulis Minerva overlooking it."
"Sulis? Who is this Sulis? I�ve never heard of her!"
"Sul. The ancient Goddess worshiped in that part of Britain. I heard of her just recently from a pilgrim returned from a visit to her oracle and healing sanctuary."
"So the dream was using what you already knew � what was already uppermost in your mind?"
"I don�t deny it. The pilgrim told me they were looking for a priest of Orpheus there, and it came into my mind to offer myself."
"You see! Nothing supernatural there."
"The dream was vivid. And when I woke I remembered every detail � and some that were not given to me by the pilgrim."
"You can only know if it was genuine by going there and checking."
"When I first heard about Aquae Sulis I felt a strange compulsion � a strong feeling that I somehow knew the place. I questioned the man repeatedly, hungry for details, never satisfied with what he told me. I kept thinking � no, that is wrong! I felt as though I�d been there long ago."
"When you dreamed about it � did you see it as you thought it used to be � or as it is now � as the pilgrim described it?" In spite of himself, Spiros was becoming fascinated.
"A bit of both. The image kept slipping and sliding from one to the other until I couldn�t be sure whether I was seeing it as it is now or as I remembered it from the past. The image of the present had lots of buildings � temples, statues � even a complex of baths on the Roman model. But the image of the past was of a wooden circular building raised above marshland... and then..."
Demosthenes shook his head sadly. "And then I saw the same place � but all that I had seen before was gone. There were new buildings of strange design � one with two huge towers on which ladders were carved in stone reaching to the sky. And there were gods and goddesses � some climbing, some falling. But none of these I knew."
Spiros, watching his friend�s face, saw the pain there and waited, patiently at last, for him to continue.
"When I first heard that someone was looking for a priest to officiate at Orphic Ceremonies I knew I ought to go, but I was happy where I was, surrounded by people I loved and who loved me. Life was extremely easy and pleasant for me in Athens."
He paused again.
"But I kept dreaming of the place � and the sequence of the images changed every time. I was never sure which of them � the marshland with the hot and bubbling mud, the weird buildings with the stone ladders, or the elegant Roman baths � were in the future, the present, or the past. Often I woke weeping."
Another pause. The silence strong and deep. Bright sunlight falling through a high, small window caused a shaft of light to illuminate a bowl of white lilies. They blazed in sudden glory.
"I began to get ill. I ached in every limb," Demosthenes continued. "But it was not really for this alone I went to Aesculapius at Epidaurus. I wanted to resolve my dilemma. I knew I had to go to Aquae Sulis � and I did not want to. I thought � I suppose I knew � that the pain in my body was a result of this conflict in my soul."
Spiros nodded. "Very likely. Very likely."
"It was after the dream � the same dream I had had so often before � that I saw Orpheus in the dream cell at Epidaurus. He stood at the foot of my bed."
"You were still dreaming?"
"No. I knew I was awake. I could see the chamber quite clearly. I remember the lamp wick was almost burned down. I was trying to decide what was different about the dream I�d just had from the recurring dreams I had been having at home, when I noticed a fig-ure standing in the room. The light was very dim from the lamp, yet there was suddenly light in the room. It was from his face."
"What did he look like?"
"I � I don�t know."
"You don�t know!" Spiros almost screamed with frustration. "You saw Orpheus and you don�t know what he looked like!"
Demosthenes shook his head. "I was so startled. I remember it was a beautiful face, a calm and kind face � but I couldn�t describe his features. His features were lost in the light."
"Was he fair or dark?"
Demosthenes shook his head.
"Tall or short?"
Again he shook his head.
"How do you know it was Orpheus?"
"Because I had called on him to help me, and he had come."
Spiros took a deep breath. He knew it would do no good to shout at Demosthenes. The man was already looking as though he wished he had not said as much as he had.
"Did he have the Phrygian cap?"
"I didn�t notice."
"Did he have animals? The lyre? Birds? What?"
"He had nothing with him. Or if he did, I didn�t notice. I was only aware of the light and... I could feel his presence. His form was clear and yet not clear. I can�t explain."
"Did he speak?"
Demosthenes took his time to reply. At last, he said � dreamily � thoughtfully � as though he were drawing the words back from a long way away: "It is time to go home."
Spiros waited for more, but no more was forthcoming.
"Is that all he said?"
"So why are you going to Britain? Why are you not going home to Athens?"
"Because I knew he was not speaking about Athens. I knew he was speaking about Aquae Sulis."
"But how can Aquae Sulis be your home? You have never been there!" Spiros almost shouted.
Demosthenes shrugged. "I don�t know. But I have no doubts now."
"Did he say the name out loud? Did you hear the words with your ears?"
"I don�t know how I heard them. I just did."
Spiros was angry.
"I�ve never heard such rubbish. You never met Orpheus at all. And even if you did � you�re deliberately going against his instructions. Athens is your home. Athens is where you were born and where you have lived all your life."
Demosthenes was staring into space, not hearing his friend�s voice. He was seeing again the calm face of his God and, at his side, a Goddess he knew to be Sul. She was smiling at him as though she had known him a long time.
While Demosthenes was in Rome, like any traveller, he walked about the streets, marvelling at the buildings he saw on every side. Coming from Athens, there was often a slight twist of disdain to his mouth.
"Have the Romans no ideas of their own?" he thought as he passed temple after temple directly copied from the Greek. He recognized the work of Greek sculptors in all the best statues that stood along the way. Often he shook his head at the Roman lack of sensitivity to proportion � columns too squat � distances between them too wide or too narrow, often only fractionally, but that fraction making the difference between true elegance and vulgar ostentation.
The hubbub in the street never seemed to cease. Vendors shouted at him as he passed, orators boomed at him from platforms. "The Romans make up for subtlety of argument by volume of sound," he remarked to himself uncharitably, remembering the teachers in the schools of philosophy in Athens. Demosthenes was a man well advanced in years who had spent most of his life as a student. His greatest pleasure was to learn, coming only recently to the Orphic priesthood.
The crowds flowing up and down the streets seemed never ending � from ragged, brown-clad beggars to rich men in crisp and dazzling white. All seemed as though they were determined to arrive somewhere � yet Demosthenes had the impression that they were all just moving about, passing each other, interweaving in every direction like a vast moving tapestry, ever changing, ever the same, going nowhere.
Suddenly he felt almost dizzy and withdrew between two columns of purple porphyry where he would be safe from being jostled by the crowd.
He shivered � staring in astonishment at what he saw. The great tall buildings were all gone and in their place were broken pieces of stone lying among flowering acanthus and oleander. The beautiful frieze of interlacing leaves he had been gazing at a moment before was smashed at his feet, only one piece still recognisable. The head of Apollo, still smiling, lay in a ditch.
"No," he whispered. "No. I don�t want this. I don�t want to see this. Take it away." He did not know to whom he was speaking for it seemed to him that not only the people had gone, but also the gods...
Then as suddenly as it had come, the fit passed and the street was busy again and he could smell sweat and garlic and dung, and hear the cries, the laughter � the whole cacophony of a busy living town. He was trembling. It had been like his dream of Aquae Sulis, but he was not asleep. A dog lifted his leg against the column beside him and he moved away quickly. He was not dreaming.
"Am I going mad?"
There had been some incidents in his childhood when he had known things that were about to happen, but as he grew up these had become less and less frequent, until recently he had scarcely thought about them. Now he remembered how frightened and uncomfortable they had made him. If he could know the future, was there any point to the present? Why did we suffer such agonies of choice and decision if all was pre-determined?
He remembered his mother standing over him. "Too much thinking is not good for you, Demo. Run out and play with the other children."
He smiled now, ruefully. He would go out and play with the other children � let the grownups worry about the meaning of it all. He stepped back into the street and followed the crowd, admiring the polished travertine of the walls, the gleaming marble of the columns and statues, the fine and vivid colours all around him � noting here a pretty face and there a child crying for a bauble glimpsed on a stall.
He came at last to the Temple of Venus Genetrix raised by Julius Caesar to honour his ancestors. The Julians believed they were descended from Aeneas of Troy who conquered and married a Latian princess. Aeneas in turn was supposed to have descended directly from Aphrodite, or, as the Romans named her, Venus. Demosthenes paused. More than any other he had passed he felt drawn to enter it. He had heard that here there was a particularly beautiful statue of Venus by the Greek sculptor Archesilaos.
She was indeed exquisite, with cupid on her shoulder and a small child at her side.
"Great Lady," he thought, "I am that child at your side. Lead me. Guide me. Protect me."
He felt a touch on his arm. An ugly priestess with no teeth was indicating that he should follow her.
She led him to a side chamber where, on tables of polished marble, were laid out the treasures of the Goddess. "Offered," the priestess hissed, "by the God Julius Caesar himself � and since his time by many visitors." No doubt she was hinting that he too should leave a generous gift.
He stared at incomparable jewels, at fine crystal goblets, and plates of beaten gold. But the thing that caught his eye and would not let it go was a jewelled breastplate of extraordinary beauty � curled and whorled and interlacing, the design drew him in. He had never seen anything like it � and yet he knew it.
He pointed to it, his eyes speaking the question he could not bring himself to ask.
"That is from Britain," the priestess whispered. "The Great Caesar took it himself from a British chieftain. They say they fought like lions for ten hours before Caesar was victorious."
Britain again. Britain!
Now Demosthenes was off the coast of Britain � tall
white cliffs ahead � sea birds swooping and squawking over
their wake as the crew threw out the rubbish of the journey.
He took a deep breath. He was coming home to the White
Island. He had seen these cliffs before.