AtthYs was excited! He was waiting in front of his uncle's house shifting nervously from one foot to the other. Kiro watched him grinning, "Calm down cousin! You will meet the Great Mother soon enough! Take care! She may bite your head off if you come too close! She's dangerous and has eaten more than one of her lovers!"
Then Kiro called back to the house, "Where are your high-born guests! AtthYs is giddy with excitement! Hurry up, let's start! What are you doing boys, still dressing up for the girls? My friends are waiting!"
Tsemo was at least as excited as AtthYs. For the first time in his life, he might have the chance to meet a god for real! Was he something special, he Tsemo the slip of a boy found and raised by a half-blind woman? He was told that shamans did not meet deities except in dreams! Tsemo speculated about the Veiled One. Was the occupant of the sedan chair really a goddess, was she really the Great Mother, or was she just a sham constructed by the Galli, purposely installed to rule the city and the country? His teacher, the High Shaman, had always warned his novices: "Don't trust your eyes! Don't trust your ears! Trust your heart only! Sorcerers may always be able to trick your senses, but never your heart!" Nonetheless, Tsemo was taut as a bowstring ready to fire. Another thought crossed his mind: If Agdistis was real, if the veiled woman really was the Great Mother, was she also the Great Mother all druids and shamans talked about? Was the Veiled One Nanna, the spouse of Balder? He had to solve the problem! What had his old teacher told him? "Take your holy flute! Pipe a question! If she is really a deity and not just an evil apparition, she will answer your question!" Tsemo held the flute. It was still attached to his necklace of bones. The flute was there! Relieved he urged the others, "Let's hurry! I want to have a good look at the Great Mother! We are late!"
At the avenue, along all the alleys, wide or narrow, even along lanes the citizens and the pilgrims were pushing and pressing forward to arrive on time in the city square. Kiro, who knew the town like the back of his hand took rat-runs, crossed gardens and dashed through crammed sheds and empty shops till they finally ran into his friends waiting at a fountain. "Kimi, Nilo, Vladi, my friends!" he introduced the boys to the sun seekers. "Let's hurry! The thundering of the big drum has already announced the start of the procession."
Kimi and Nilo took the lead. Laong side by side with AtthYs took after them, and Aegir followed with Buri edging their way forward through the crowd. Vladi, who was a head shorter than his friends, took Tsemo's hand and dragged him along. "Faster! Faster!" he urged. "We have to keep up with the others! If we lose them now, we will never find them in the crowd!" Moments later they were pushed out of their way by pilgrims, praying and singing. "Stupid-ass bumpkins!" Vladi cursed, "They should stay in their stinking homesteads and not annoy noble citizens!"
The Agora, the big city square, was alive with people of all ages. At first glance, there seemed to be no space left for the procession to cross to the altar at the square's western end. Neither Tsemo nor Vladi were able to see over the heads of the grownups in the square because they were too short. "We have to edge our way to the east side of the square, to my uncle's house! Give me your hand." Even before Tsemo could ask why, Vladi began to worm his way through the crowd pushing the people and pulling Tsemo along. Some people complained, others just shook their heads angrily and some out-of-towners even threatened to beat up the "cheeky city boys". Arriving at the other side by the shops surrounding the town-square Vladi heaved a sigh of relief, "Uncle, uncle!" he shouted loudly to a fat man on the roof of a two-story house, "Can I and my new friend come up too? We can't see the altar from down here!"
He didn't wait and pushed Tsemo into a passage-way between the houses. Taking a ladder, they climbed up to find a place on the already overcrowded flat-roof. "That's Tsemo, the shaman!" he tried to impress his annoyed uncle, "Look dearest Uncle!" Tugging at his uncle's sleeve, "Tsemo is a famous shaman from a clan upstream! He has come from far away to take part in the celebration! He needs to have a good view of the Great Mother." When his uncle growled, Vladi turned to begging, "Please let us stay dear uncle, I promise never to pilfer sweets in your shop anymore!" The fat man eyed Tsemo suspiciously but then reluctantly accepted him at face value, "Seems pretty young for a famous shaman!" he grumbled, "Looks more like one of your buddies."
The uncle's wife, even fatter than her husband, sized Tsemo up and then smiled, "Let the boys stay! Kiro's mother told me of her guest! They are famous! They are on their way to Ta-Seti, a country far, far away! " and then she addressed Tsemo "Welcome to our home, dear Tsemo. Meeting you in the street I never would have guessed you are a shaman! You look so cute! The shamans I know look much more dignified and are much older!" turning to her husband, "He really looks cute, just like the slave-boys, you like so much!
Just then the procession arrived at the Agora, therefore, neither Tsemo nor her husband had to respond! The people in the square turned their heads as if they had been commanded towards the avenue and were trying to get at least a glimpse of the splendour of the procession coming down from Temple Town. The smaller ones rose on tiptoe to get a look, but mostly in vain. When the procession arrived in the square the crowd fell silent but only for a moment and then cheers rose into the air praising the Great Mother!
The procession was headed by an imposing man carrying a banner waving in the breeze from the Black Sea. Two young galli marched by his side blowing big curved horns made of wild goat-horn. The rhythmical hooting drowned out the cheers. When the hooting faded the clashing of cymbals and twanging of harps produced by six young musicians in loincloths filled the air. The soft melody introduced a group of temple servants swinging censers. Then the next group entered the city square. Suddenly the clashing of cymbals was drowned out by the admiring cheers of the waiting citizens and pilgrims. For the onlookers further away, the Sedan chair with the Great Mother looked like a boat gliding on top of the waves. The waves, however, were the heads of the people on the square.
The sedan chair with the Great Mother was carried by two dozen young, nearly naked priests with garlands of spring-flowers around their necks. The beautifully adorned young men were nearly invisible, because a school of graceful maidens were dancing around the sedan-chair. These were the maidens everybody was waiting for, the girls called Daughters of the Great Mother! The young maidens looked like bell-flowers in their long flowing dresses. The garments covered the girls from head to toe. But they were open at the front. Therefore, every dancing step and the lightest blast of air revealed the graceful and delicate bodies of the maidens partly hidden by the wide dresses. Every boy, every lad and every adult man tried to get a glimpse of the flowering bodies. Every girl, every young lady and every woman watched over the delicate bodies of the dancers jealously.
The citizens tried to guess which of the Daughters of the Great mother came from what family. But in vain! The faces of the dancing beauties were covered except for a small slit around their eyes. And this small gap was covered by a net.
The Great Mother sitting enthroned in the sedan-chair was also covered from head to toe with a wide flowing dress and her eyes were concealed by a grille. She looked like a statue. But she was alive, because her head turned once in a while fixing a bystander or another with a gaze from behind the grille. A murmur went through the crowd, "The Great Mother is searching the crowd for a young man, the young man she wants to make her husband! Look! She is searching! Her head is moving. Who will be the chosen one! Which of the young men will be honoured to become her spouse? Which of the young men will be honoured to live with her at the fountain of youth?" Her gaze made the young men's flesh crawl in a thrill of pleasure and fear. Elderly priests in wide coats followed the sedan reciting prayers. Ageless nuns in grey clothes tailed the procession keeping counts of the invocations by running strings of beads through their fingers.
Tsemo searched the crowd for his friends, "Look, Vladi! There they are in front of the altar!"
"Where?" Vladi asked, "I can't recognize your friends!"
"Look, the foxy-haired guy in the second row and the black-haired besides him. Look, Aegir and Buri are having trouble holding AtthYs back. It looks as if he wants to rush to the altar."
"Yes, I can see it! Kiro, Kimi and Nilo are in front of AtthYs. They are trying to push him back!" He turned to Tsemo, "Kiro feels responsible for his cousin! He has to keep him from the suicidal attempt to become the chosen one of the Great Mother. Kiro calls AtthYs a mad dog! Last year he tried to attract the attention of the man-eating monster too!"
"Why are you calling her a man-eater? She's said to be an eternal being, a goddess!" Tsemo remarked, searching the crowd on the square nervously, "But where is Laong, you know the novice, my friend? I can't see him! Can you?"
Not until Aegir and Buri, together with Kiro's buddies, were standing in front of the magnificently decorated altar did Aegir realize that Tsemo wasn't with them. "We've lost Tsemo! Hi Buri, we've lost Tsemo!" rising on his tiptoes and searching the crowd, "He is as short as a child! He is certain to have got lost in the crowd!"
"No problem! The little shaman was with Vladi. Vladi is street smart and sly as an old dog! He will not get lost nor will Tsemo. Vladi has a fancy for mysterious people."
AtthYs tenseness was contagious. As long as the procession was still in the big avenue, he shifted from one foot to the other, however as soon as the parade arrived in the city square his face turned white and he froze in his tracks.
"Don't faint!" Buri warned AtthYs and put an arm around his shoulder! "Don't pass out, friend! Do you believe Agdistis, the Great Mother, is hot for a pussy boy? She only devours strong men!"
"Like you?" Aegir teased his curly-headed friend, "She sure would like to press a hot black man to her breast!"
"And drink my blood, you silly! No way!"
In the square, the people formed a line of honour along the route the procession took to the raised platform of the altar. All the citizens and pilgrims bowed their heads in worship. They lowered their eyes and avoided looking straight up at the Great Mother! All except AtthYs'. He stood tall as a tree and gazed straight up at the veiled goddess. His eyes nearly popped out of his head because he tried so hard to penetrate the grille covering her eyes. He wanted to look into her eyes. He stood there like a tree swaying in a tempest. Aegir and Buri had to support his left and right, while Kiro, Kimi and Nilo kept him from falling forward.
When the priests lifted the sedan with the great Mother onto the altar and the horns announced the beginning of the service the citizen and pilgrims fell down on their knees with the exception of AtthYs and his companions. The Great Mother rose from the sedan chair, standing tall she spread her arms to bless the crowd. Inevitably her eyes fell onto the group of young men at the foot of the altar. She searched for the reason of their misconduct and by intuition, she knew it was the young man in the centre. The reason was AtthYs. The Great Mother fixed her eyes on the young man to read his mind.
AtthYs couldn't make out her mesmerising eyes behind the grille but he had the feeling of thousands of arrows stabbing his mind and his body. He yelled! His body started shaking, his legs turned to jelly. The convulsions didn't last more than a moment; then his mind went blank. At that moment a high-pitched, clear sound flew like an arrow across the square. The sound hit AtthYs' eardrums, forced open his eyes, it wiped away his dizziness and he became aware of his surroundings again. He blushed and felt ashamed because everyone around seemed to be staring at him. However, the people hadn't turned their heads to him. They all were searching for the source of the clear sound which had drowned out the music of cymbals and harps and mesmerized Agdistis, the Great Mother.
It was Tsemo's flute which had caused the sudden change. Tsemo had witnessed AtthYs's strange behaviour from his observation point on the roof of Vladi's uncle's house and intuitively he had been sure about the reason. "The Great Mother is hypnotizing AtthYs! She's trying to deprive him of his soul," he whispered to Vladi. At lightning speed, he raised the holy flute to his lips. Sending a quick prayer to the three Norns, the mothers of destiny, Tsemo charmed the highest and clearest sound possible with his flute. This sound left the flute, darted across the square to the Great Mother pierced her mind and in the next moment, her force was broken. Hit by the clear sound she had to shut her eyes and let AtthYs go free. The grey veiled body shrunk back in her sedan and for a moment she looked like a discarded old rag. "She isn't a real goddess, she is a creature of the priests, the Galli!" Tsemo muttered.
The folks, however, didn't realize this change because at the moment the beautiful maidens in their bell-flower-like dresses began to dance around the flower-decorated altar.
While Laong pushed his way through the dense crowd populating the square with Aegir and the others he suddenly missed Tsemo and Vladi. He got worried and immediately turned back to search for his friend. Just a moment he himself was lost in the crowd. He decided to shove his way back to Kiro's father's house by the river. However, he was not able to fight his way back because the dense crowd pushed forward to the altar.
Laong's only hope was that Tsemo had kept close to Vladi who as a local resident knew the town like the back of his hand. Stuck between the sweating spectators he suddenly remembered Vladi's curious way of sizing Tsemo up. Almost instantly he remembered the way he himself had sized Tsemo up the first time they met. His heart skipped a beat! Had Vladi fallen in love with Tsemo? He had to know, and he swore to himself that he would prevent it. Tsemo was his!
The high and clear sound of a flute diverted Laong out of his thoughts. It was the sound of Tsemo's holy flute. Because he had listened to this sound Laong was sure it must be close. Again, he searched among the people in the square. In vain! Then he began to scan the roofs of the houses surrounding the place. There Tsemo was on the roof of a house on the side opposite the altar! Laong pushed his way to the house and moments later he had climbed on to the roof and barged in between Tsemo and Vladi. "Praise all you Holy Beings! Praise to the Norns!" he burst out, "Here you are, my Tsemo!" Still, out of breath he put an arm around his friend and kissed him neither caring for Vladi nor his uncle and the others. Vladi looked surprised, but before he could utter a word Laong bent over with a big smile and gave him a peck on the cheek, "Thank you for saving my friend, dear brother. You took a load off my mind! I was so worried something bad happened to my love!"
Vladi was a rascal, but one with a good heart and a trustworthy sense of other people's feelings, "I like Tsemo! I adore him!" Vladi smiled bravely at Laong. "I never intended to take him away from you. But" he stuttered, "But, I would like to have him as a friend too!"
On the opposite side of the square at the foot of the altar, the clear sound of Tsemo's flute had startled AtthYs out of his emotional numbness. His head was throbbing. He opened his eyes and immediately closed them again. The world around him was spinning and the sunlight was unbearable. When he opened his eyes for a second time his dizziness was gone and his eyes caught sight of the beautiful maidens in their bell-flower-like dresses dancing around the altar of the Great Mother.
AtthYs was unable to avert his eyes from the bewitching maidens. He had no eye for the Great Mother slumped back defeated in her seat. His heart jumped for joy! This was the moment he had been waiting for, waiting for all his life long and not only he, no! All the young men crowded in front of the altar had only eyes for the dancing maidens in their free-flowing dresses which displayed their blossoming bodies rather than concealing them.
There were two reasons all the young men of marital age had edged forward to get a place immediately by the altar. The first, the minor one, was to have the best look at the Daughters of the Great Mother. The second was the one of greater importance. At the end of the ceremony at the first day, each of the maidens would take a gay-coloured feather out of a basket at the feet of the Great Mother and offer it to one of the young men. The young man who got one of these feathers was the happiest in the whole world and naturally was met with envy by all who came away empty-handed. And this was the secret of the gay feathers. While the Great Mother was choosing her mate with the strength of her mind, the maidens were choosing their future husbands with these feathers. And while the young man chosen by the Great Mother was found dead at the end of the festival and the young man chosen by one of her maidens married the beauty and the marriages initiated at this ceremony lasted a lifetime.
Kiro, Kimi and Nilo were not involved in this serious game because of their age. Aegir and Buri who had passed the rites of passage already were marriageable and in a way rivals of AtthYs. The young fisherman trembled with excitement and couldn't avert his eyes from the dancing maidens. Time and again he whispered to Aegir and Buri pointing at one of the dancing girls, "Look at her, how graceful, how beautiful! A body like a nymph! Look her slender legs. Look her tender breasts, her graceful bottom." He didn't talk of any one of the maidens in particular; he wasn't even able to do so, because the maidens buzzed around the Great Mother like bees around a honey-pot. Aegir who also admired the beautiful spectacle happily put an arm around Buri's shoulder and began to tease AtthYs. "Of which girl are you talking, AtthYs? The petite girl? The slender one? The one with the big breasts? Or the one with the broad haunches?"
As AtthYs didn't answer but continued to rave, Buri asked him, "Do you recognize a single one of them? They all are veiled. I would like to see her face to face before I let one hustle me away!"
Now it was the boys' chance to reveal that they had recognized some of the maidens. Kimi whispered to Aegir and Buri, "The slender one! Look! She is our neighbour's second daughter. She is nice looking, but she is a beast. She always hits her little sisters and teases boys." Nilo pointed to a fat one, "She's my aunt's daughter!" he told Aegir, "Don't marry her! She is a lazy chatter-box." then he said conspiratorially, "But, I am told by my big brother she is good for a ride!" Kiro grinned, "Look at the petit one, Buri! She is really sweet! I bet you five to one she would not survive the first night with a bull like you!" Aegir broke out in laughter and poked Kiro in the ribs, "How do you know? Have you slept with Buri? I tell you a secret, Buri can be as sweet as a kitten!" But AtthYs didn't listen to the wisecracks of Kiro, Kimi and Nilo. He only had eyes for the girls.
Now the ceremony had reached its climax. The maidens lined up in front of the Great Mother. They walked up to her, saluted her by bowing deeply and in return received a coloured feather out of her hands. Then a new dance of the Daughters of the Great Mother began. Looking like gracious lovely bellflowers in their flowing dresses they moved down the stairs of the altar hardy touching the ground. At its foot, they lined up and, animated by the sound of flutes, timpani and cymbals, joined hands and began a dance in front of the altar. The hearts of the young men began to beat irregularly, their stomachs cramped, some even became sick with excitement, other closed their eyes awaiting the thundering beat of a drum. But the Daughters of the Great Mother danced on, moved in circles and then joined hands again to dance a ring-a-ring of roses. Then unexpectedly a single drumbeat stopped the music and the maidens began to move like a swarm of butterflies. Like butterflies in spring are dancing from flower to flower in search of honey the Daughters of the Great Mother danced from one young man to the next in search of the one they wanted to bewitch. They touched this young man with colourful feather, then danced on to the next touching him and then danced to another. The intriguing spectacle went on and on and the marriageable youngsters became jumpier and jumpier with every bantering move of the maidens. The tension of the young men became nearly unbearable. In breathless silence, both citizens and pilgrims were following the spectacle waiting for the redeeming moment when another thundering drumbeat put an end to the spectacle.
The maidens stood stiff as statues but in the blink of an eye one then another and one after another they moved forward and with a deep curtsy, each presented her feather to the young man of her choice. The tension of the citizen and pilgrims made way for a thundering round of applause: Cheers rang out and drowned the lovely tune of the flutes, the timpani and the cymbals.
The tension of AtthYs reached a climax when the veiled maidens in their shimmying veils moved like butterflies from one young man to the next. Most of the butterflies had already chosen a young man. Only some of the Great Mother's lovely daughters were still examining the rows of young men for the one to be their chosen one. AtthYs had not yet been chosen.
"Calm down! Calm down!" Aegir tried to caution him, "It's up to the Great Mother alone. She chooses the one for each of her Daughters! She alone knows which two people will fit together for a lifetime!"
AtthYs just shook his head in desperation, when Kiro whispered excitedly, "Watch out, watch out AtthYs you will be next!"
"No! No! Never!" he stuttered and nearly fainted when a beautiful maiden approached him light-footed. Neither AtthYs nor the others could see her eyes, but all six sensed that they were studied through the grille. The careful examination seemed never to end. Then the veiled maiden touched with her colourful feather one after the other. With the tip of the feather she touched Kiro on the nose. This made him sneeze. She touched Kimi and Nilo behind the ears. This made them giggle. She caressed Aegir's foxy mane for a long time with the feather tip and afterwards tried to tame Buri's night-black curls. AtthYs in the centre of the group was wishing the ground would open and swallow him, but then the unexpected happened. The beautiful maiden bowed her head and with the grace of a princess she handed over the feather to him. AtthYs accepted the gift with shaking hands and a face as white as snow. When she fluttered back to join the others at the altar of the Great Mother AtthYs stood still as a poker. Not a single word passed his lips.
I would like to express my special thanks to my friend Anthony for improving my writing.
Comments, reviews, questions, and complaints are welcomed. Please send them to Ruwen Rouhs
Last, but not least I would like to add thanks for reading.