An Ancient Cleansing
It was in the thirty-third year of the gracious Emperor Caius Octavius Caepias Augustus that a woman and a man-child were brought into the world by two Roman subjects of high distinction. The father was brother to the Emperor, senator and world-renowned general. The mother was said to be a mistress-queen belonging to the house of Ptolemy of Egypt. Their love for each other ended the night Augustus burned them alive before the Coliseum doors for their treasonous crime of passion. It was reported that the male child was sacrificed to the Gods as a peace offering between Egypt and Rome. The woman-child was taken into the house of the Emperor and raised as his own. He named her Magdala, which meant “adulterer.”
“Ephesus was a city full of strangers these days.
In the old days no one was a stranger.”
Long ago the first worshippers of the thousand-breasted Artemis, patron fertility Goddess of the city, called themselves Amazons. These women took no husbands. Yet once every year, usually in the spring, like a herd of thirsty cattle, they made their way down from the mountains to the streets of Ephesus. For that night and that night only, they would seduce all the healthy, young men they could find. For some strange reason, men always gave into their advances. Some young men claimed they were forced to have sex with several of the women at the same time. Whatever the true story, each year the Amazons conquered Ephesus. They took nothing back with them except the hopes of bearing a child. Before the end of the year, abandoned male babies, often dead or dying, were found on doorsteps throughout the city. Amazons kept only the female babies.
In spite of the sexual raids in the spring, Ephesus had flourished under a strong Roman infrastructure that fostered peace. There was time to enjoy life. Since the time of the ancients, cultic prostitution had been a central part of its splendid culture. Daily, both priests and priestesses stood or sat on the steps of the temple waiting anxiously to bring pleasure to the next lonely devotee
Times were changing. The massive stone structures of the city, like its never-ending spring fed water below its streets, had always been invincible. Now amidst the turmoil of an influx of refugees from the wars in the East, less support from the wealthy aristocrats within the Roman guard, and a weakened priesthood, Ephesus was crumbling. She was dying from within.
Some said that Zeus had put a curse on the city. He was angry with the Amazons because they had kept all the female babies for themselves. The Amazons had stolen the heart of Ephesus. The discarded souls and deaths of the male children were bringing vengeance on the city.
With tears streaming down her golden-covered breasts, Artemis no longer hailed every passing ship inviting them to visit her temple and city. Sadly, she sat near the edge of the water and watched her playground for the rich become a dangerous infested swamp.
“In Ephesus the nights are dark and women who are alone do not stay that way for very long.”
Magdala’s heart burned for her lover, John. She had spent the last year of her life and most of her great fortune scouring the coasts of the Mediterranean in search of both John and her beloved, Phoebe. Imprisoned during the devastating siege of Judea by the Romans under Titus, Magdala had lost contact with her loved ones who had been living in the north, in Galilee. While the devastation was not as great in the north, people had been burned or uprooted from their homes and taken as slaves by the Romans. Some escaped into the hills. After thousands of faces and almost as many letters, Magdala’s persistence was rewarded. Only a few days ago, a private courier had delivered a hand-scratched message from John.
Magdala could barely read the note; she was very ill. Some said that she had only days, perhaps weeks, to live. The fevers had destroyed much of her lovely body. Hygeia had implored her to make her way to a northern climate where the cool breezes would provide relief from her disease. She sought refuge in the snow-covered mountains near Bithynia. In Thyatira, several hundred miles north of Ephesus, Magdala and her personal healer, Hygeia, lived a cloistered but restless time away from the hot suns of the desert surrounding Ephesus for a few months. Magdala longed for John; he was on her mind day and night. But as the months passed, she convinced herself that both he and her daughter had either been taken as slaves or killed during the wars. With disbelief she read the note.
“My dearest Magdala,
At last I have found you. It seems like an eternity since we were together. I am in Ephesus at the Asclepioi House. Come to me. I have heard that Phoebe is also alive. She is in Rome and will arrive in a few days. I would come to you, but I have been arrested by the Romans and they will not allow me to leave the city. With all my love, I anxiously await your arrival.
Magdala and Hygeia packed their trunks and began the long trek to Ephesus. They traveled for days over rivers and rugged land that was almost inaccessible. Weary from the journey and the mountain terrain, they sought refuge for the night in a forgotten sanctuary. Entering the abandoned temple, they discovered blood-stained murals, broken pots, and crushed furniture.
“Magdala, I think we should leave. We have desecrated the sacred space of the dead who are buried here,” advised Hygeia.
“Hygeia, it is so cold outside, don’t you think that we will be safer in here than out on the open road? It looks like no one has been here in a very long time,” argued Magdala.
“Madgala, I can hear voices, so many voices,” cried Hygeia.
In spite of their feelings about the temple, both of them decided to make camp in its ruins. They would be safe for another night. As they arranged their things and sat down beside a warm fire set by Hygeia, Magdala began to dream. Her thoughts took her back to Galilee, to the hills surrounding Capernaum. She would never forget the day that she found John and Lysander, the magician.
Looking across the fire at Magdala, Hygeia wondered about her far-away look.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I was just thinking about the day I found John and Lysander.” Hygeia said. “Who did you say?”
“Magdala, I can’t believe it. All these years we have been together and you never mentioned him.”
“Did you know him also, Hygeia?”
“Yes, it was a very long, long time ago. He was very young.”
“Magdala, where did you meet him?”
And Magdala began to tell the story.
(To be continued in Part 2)