Is the bizarre ritual of the Lokrian maidens a direct link between myth and recorded history? Very possibly. It began as an ancient atonement for a crime committed so far back in the mists of time that we only know of it through oral tradition, yet it continued for centuries into recorded history.
Legend has it that, during the sack of Troy, a sacrilege was committed in Athena’s temple. The Greek warrior Ajax’s rape of Cassandra while she sought asylum in the sanctuary was so outrageous that the wrathful goddess sank his home-bound fleet, killing him and all his men, and then, still not satisfied, wreaked famine and pestilence on his native realm, Lokris. When the beleaguered citizens asked the Oracle of Delphi how to lift her curse, they learned that the goddess demanded two maidens, sworn to virginity, to be sent on a perilous journey across the Aegean to serve as menial slaves for a year in her temple in Troy. This was to happen annually for a thousand years. The girls were chosen by lot. The ritual specified that once they landed on the Trojan shore, they were hunted like prey, fair game to be killed until they reached the sanctuary of the temple. If they survived their journey and their servitude, they returned home at the end of a year, to be replaced by two more girls, but had to remain virgins for life. If one or both of the girls were killed, replacements had to be sent.
While it may sound far-fetched, we know from historical evidence that this ritual was actually carried out annually until around 300 B.C.E. The Trojan War, if it happened at all, supposedly took place around 1200 B.C.E. That means the ritual probably went on for eight or nine hundred years.
What was it like, I wondered, to be one of those maidens chosen against her will and bound for an unforgiving shore? This was the genesis of my novel Shadow of Athena, set in Archaic Greece, in which sixteen-year-old Marpessa’s name is drawn to be one of the unfortunate maidens.
The day she is chosen is just the beginning of Marpessa’s troubles. Many unforeseen calamities befall her and the male slave sent to escort her. Even if the two can find their way home at the end of their trials, Marpessa’s vengeful thwarted suitor awaits them there with murder in his heart.
To find out what happens, look for Shadow of Athena, by Elena Douglas, published by Penmore Press in 2019.