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THE LOCRIAN MAIDENS
When doing research on the Trojan War for my novel, Warrior’s Prize, I came upon an amazing story concerning a unique, bizarre ritual with its roots in legend that was carried out well into historical times. It provided an actual link between the Trojan War and verifiable recorded history. And it was so compelling that I knew at once it was the premise of my novel Shadow of Athena.
It began with a sacrilege committed at Troy. Homer tells of two heroes by the name of Ajax. One was a mighty warrior who died before Troy fell. But our story concerns the second Ajax, a lesser man who hailed from Locris in mainland Greece. During the sack of Troy, when the princess Cassandra, sister of Hector, sought refuge in the temple of Athena, this Ajax followed her there, tore her from the sanctuary and, some versions say, raped her. Ajax’s fellow warriors realized immediately that he had committed a great sacrilege. Fearing that the goddess’s wrath would fall on all of them, they tried to stone him to death. Whereupon Ajax saved himself by running back into the temple, clinging to the image of Athena, and vowing to expiate his sin.
But it was not to be. On his journey home his ship was wrecked near the coast of Greece, and Ajax was flung into the raging sea. He managed to scramble onto a rock near the shore, where he shouted his defiance of the gods. His hubris had passed all bounds. Poseidon sheared off the section of rock to which he clung, and he fell into the sea and drowned.
Athena, unappeased, sent drought and pestilence to his homeland Locris. When the citizens sought help from the oracle of Delphi, they were told that to propitiate the goddess they must send two maidens to her temple in Troy every year for a thousand years. Thus began the ritual that continued into recorded history.
Every year two maidens were chosen by lot to go to Troy, accompanied on their journey across the sea by two Locrian guides. The ritual decreed that once they reached the Trojan shore, they were fair game to be killed by armed men who lay in wait for them and who were hailed as heroes if they killed one of the maidens. Not until they reached the temple itself were they safe. If a maiden was killed, her body was burned as a defilement on unfruitful wood and thrown into the sea. And a replacement from Locris had to be sent.
The maidens who survived this journey had their heads shorn and went barefoot, clothed in the single garment of a slave. They spent their days in degrading servitude, washing and sweeping the outer temple but not allowed to enter the sanctuary itself. And when their year was finished, they returned home but could not marry and must remain virgins the rest of their lives.
The story of the Locrian maidens was fairly begging to be told. And so my novel, Shadow of Athena, began to take shape. The maiden Marpessa, a carefree young girl who loved all living things and wanted only to live a normal secure life, found her name drawn to become one of the temple slaves. And so began the adventure that would uproot her from her home and endanger her very life.
Walter Leaf. A Study in Homeric Geography. MacMillan and Company limited. London,1912. Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing.
James M. Redfield. The Locrian Maidens. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 2003.
Photos by Bruce Precourt. Used with permission.