“You ask me what most pleases those gods who dwell in the Underworld? That you not enter the Underworld.”
The demon-genie guide in the Comedia Diabolus Fabula, date and author(s)unknown.
“And so in closing I would summarize the philosophy of the good and long-suffering Diogenes thus: ‘The world is a gigantic pile of shit and covered with shit maggots, but some of you young maggots may have brains and can make a difference. If you can keep yourselves out of the shit.’”
This raises a great laugh in the main Serapis lecture hall from the assembled boys, just as Ovid intended and ends his long but often enthralling historical and mythological digression on a lively pleasing note. I could listen to this great orator and poet forever.
Old Didymus ‘Bronze-Guts’ looks a little scandalized by Ovid’s earthy language but the mood in the hall is rarely so cordial and co-operative and he smiles finally with reluctant approval. They descend from the large central podium with the other masters and tutors and the students immediately mob around Ovid so that he and the living relic Chalcenterus can barely breathe, much less move.
I meet Satureus in the colonnade past the crush of young lean bodies and we walk leisurely away, seemingly a chance meeting. The Gardens of Isis are in full bloom, brilliantly alight and effervescent with orange blossoms and the exotic perfumed horticultures of the Arboretum as hectic Maius turns from the days of wild stimulated and carefully husbanded fertility into the spectacular harvest and beautiful abundances of Quintilius and Sextilis.
Didymus ‘Bronze-Guts’ Chalcenterus is a resolute traditionalist and refuses to refer to the summer months by the new imperial names Iulius and Augustus, and the emperor of that name in Rome, a good friend, forgives him this. The twin festivals of the Goddess and Pan approach with the occasion of the summer equinox, an important event in Alexandria. Each year by long-held custom the Library staff and students conduct the sacred rites of blessing and Bacchanalia in the opulent and famous Ptolemy’s palace grounds. This year, Satureus himself is to personify Pan, a signal honour.
I look around – we are quite alone as the sunny aromatic Arboretum falls behind us.
“Master, may I study with you tonight?”
“Simon Antonius Felix, why are you always so impatient to trifle with forbidden things? Have you no shame?”
Kind eyes and a laughing tone belie the stern words. Most of the other boys say he is too fine a man to share his love and learning with me, and indeed Satureus is handsome, quite beautiful in fact. His clear eyes and perfect form and easy manners are almost all they see, for Satureus is also one of the greatest scholars in all the Library of Alexandria and he knows its secrets even better than old Didymus.
“I feel shame of every minute I do not take full advantage of the miraculous treasures of learning here, Master. I would have no other guide to them.”
When he smiles like that he is Apollo himself, alabaster face of light and golden brow and vital exciting youth and that strange, sad magnetism of deep reflective intelligence. Master Satureus is a luminous being and the finest teacher of Aeschylus and Sophocles and Pindar and Aristophanes alive today.
But the true depth of his knowledge and wisdom are not even known to Bronze-Guts himself, although the old bastard shows no hesitation in stealing Satureus’ scholia work for his own purposes and to add lustre to his ancient creaking fame.
“Tell your father’s slave you will have one of the visitor’s cells tonight, for your studies require rare books subject to special permissions. I will meet you in the chapel of Demeter and we will ask her blessing together.”
We reach the end of the long colonnade and part in different directions, exchanging a meaningful glance, and as he goes his way towards the Refectory Satureus hands me the small vial I had been hoping for. I clutch it to myself with a complex flush of emotions and affection and excitement and rush on my own way.
Soft afternoon light plays over the crowded buildings of the Museion where I am headed. The study rooms there will be quiet and I wish solitude to prepare myself. Ovid and Didymus will hold court in the larger Serapeum for the rest of the day, answering the naïve little questions of the awed plebeians and having source volumes brought up from the vast scroll collections to demonstrate minor literary and trivial mythological points.
What questions from the dark wells of forbidden knowledge I could already ask them from Master Satureus’ tireless perfection of my tutelage, ones for which the Library’s remarkable Index, itself more than a thousand scrolls of careful cross-referenced entries, could yield but a few volumes of authority or acknowledged reliability to illume. There are more enduring sources than books.
Alone in a reading room dedicated to Erato I unfurl a scroll I should not possess on the broad rough wood table directly in a ray falling down from the small chamber’s cleverly-designed roof slats that give enhanced daylight via dull metal reflectors generating a steady pleasant fluorescence but never a trace of rain or salt-spray from the harbour on stormy or troubulous days.
‘The Nines’ are quiet and near-deserted – I have not even noticed any of the usual slaves who assist and keep order on behalf of the Masters and tutors who are all freedmen or indentured directly to the Library and so obligated to Didymus. Everyone is at the Serapeum listening or trying to get close to Ovid, hardly surprising given his fame and close ties to the imperial family in Rome.
So I have blessed privacy in the labyrinth of chambers within the Museion, a series of houses adapted and interconnected over the centuries into a complicated warren of little study chambers and meditational catacombs all variously consecrated to one or several of the nine Goddess-aspects who are the patron-inspirati of the sanctioned arts. A student with any sensitivity and sense of propriety tries to find a chamber whose Muse dedication is the one most conducive to their studies of the moment.
Tiny altars to their respective mistress adorn each irregular room and I stare intently at the small pan below the copper effigy of Erato where I left my vial offering of primrose oil and nightshade received from my master. Its fragrance is fading and guttering to bitterness in the air already as I read assisted by a small oil lamp. For daylight will not capture all the subtleties in this scroll, fire is also needed.
I feel Her influence as the ancient writing comes alive and fills my imagination with images and wordless impressions of the past in arcane Babylonian (perhaps earlier) verse:
‘For my love dwells in the sky
My eyes as stars
Look upon you
Know thy heart
Know thy soul
In lives beyond number
We are written of eternity
Bee seeks flower
Storm finds Land
Moon joins Sun
Lives forever joined.’
Fragments from a long poem imperfectly but lovingly mistranslated by some Babylonian scribe whose name is long lost to history, the verses themselves more ancient than that now-vanished civilization. Yet its passion and wondrous sense of mystery is as luminant today as the unknown millenniums ago when it was first written. It far predates Abraham himself and the ruins of Chaldea which flourished mightily in his time.
Seemingly about two transmigrating karmically-conjoined souls (we have Vedic and Brahmin and Buddhic texts from the unimaginably distant sky-lands of Thibet and Nepali in the Library too) the primordial poetic tale is in fact a cleverly-disguised parable of the bonds of cosmic love between the Logos or First Principle and His first thought, the Goddess or sacred Ennoia from which all Creation springs and whose transcendent Love humanity must learn to emulate.
Satureus himself copied the fragments and made a present of them to me when we first became close. The elder parchments of their original are one of the most precious archaisms of the Inner Library where only the entrusted may go.
Meditating and taking a long draught from the silver vessel I paid my father’s apothecary so much patiently-stolen cash and minor articles for, I drift into a partial trance in which the dim chamber, sharply and brilliantly cut by the intensified bars of light descending from the roof, gradually brightens into subtle and fantastic hues where every detail of table and wall and floor and ceiling are visible. Erato’s effigy seems to gesture and mutter to itself and avoid my fascinated gaze, absorbed in spirit-dialogues no human can share. Reflected burnished sunlight becomes a material thing, a weightless liquid I can shape with my hand.
Now is the time. I take up the scroll and run certain portions between the verses quickly and lightly past the flame of the oil lamp, which in my amplified vision is a great sear of divine fire itself igniting awesome invisible secrets as I take out an envelope of fine power and with a prayerful incantation its Magi-mixed dust erupts with flashing spicules of light upon the celestial diagrams there.
For a timeless interval, my vision and understanding amplified to indescribably vivid acuity, I see and experience by the understanding secrets of our universe which are engraved into the thick papyri itself and can only be illumed by just-so combinations: precise application of heat and correctly, delicately-infused chemical compounds. And a little bit of magic.
My consciousness is taken up and into the transits and ellipsoids and fabulous charts of cosmological harmony. Sacred words and mathematics and divine calculi spin me dizzyingly through starry vortices and interpenetrating spheres from the Empyrean to the Underworld. All of it limned in living flame that booms and resounds with voices alternately those of angels and devils or both that speak clearly of the secrets of eternity, resonating to every facet of my yearning soul.
Fading now with the transcendent exhilaration and clarity briefly given to me as I descend towards the muddy chaotic confusion of mere human consciousness once more and awaken to find my timeless interval has been several hours and the night has come on. Already the Museion stirs as the slave-attendants begin to close it up for the day and I sit in cold darkness alone, the lamp long since run out. The page before me is only a yellow space with a few elegant scrawls wandering across it.
I roll up the precious and proscribed object and conceal it among my usual commonplace ones for return to Satureus (I still haven’t finished the complicated Euclidean geometrical exercises set me by old Neoforma the science master) and steal out quietly; unseen. My father’s slave Dilanius waits faithfully just outside the gate of Artemis which is the Library’s public entrance and I surreptitiously give him a coin (pilfered from my father’s own purse and newly-minted Roman; I’d rather Pater not catch me with it someday) for unreasonably detaining him. Since I am under the personal responsibility of Master Satureus and I occasionally spend the night here for study, he accepts more or less graciously. Still, my father never likes it and is known for lashing out at slaves who momentarily annoy or bring him unwelcome news.
Dilanius shuffles off nursing his coin and I go to the Refectory, wondering why he looked at me so strange and searchingly when we spoke just now. Perhaps I showed too much pleasure when I mentioned my work with Master Satureus, most boys my age can hardly wait to be released from their studious labours and dry-as-parchment tutors.
Ovid our visitor of course is a rare exception. Famous throughout the empire and, I’m told, far beyond for his prolific and increasing compendium of poetical work his presence at the Library, itself the pre-eminent centre of learning and chief repository of knowledge in the civilized world, has enthralled all of Alexandria. Many of the boys whose fathers are rich merchants or officials and live in town are also staying tonight so as to take marketable stories of his words and conversation home.
But I said nothing of this to Dilanius, he must have hoped for some anecdote to give my father in case his mood is bad, which is virtually always. As many painful childhood indiscretions and humiliating episodes remind me, I have to learn to guard myself and be much less self-absorbed. It is far better for a slave like Dilanius to pay the price of a beating if I can contrive it.
Refectory is very crowded as I sit down to eat with the other boys and the slave cooks are hard-pressed to dish out enough for everyone, but there is little grumbling. The food, as usual, is a disgrace. My father would have these poisoners whipped to death if they dared to set such inedible slop down in front of him. I pass my own meagre bowl to little Sejanus, the twitchy hard-faced boy used as a rough-trade catamite by some of the less discriminating boys.
He is pathetically grateful for the smallest kind gesture – his father can’t abide him and only lets him back home from the Library every few weeks. Since his father is Lucius Seius Strabo, Rome’s governor Prefect of all Egypt, it is good to have a friend in your master’s master’s house. For my own father Marcus Antonius Felix is Strabo’s personal secretary.
Ovid sits with Didymus and senior tutors at the high table and it seems to go on interminably forever, time literally dragging across the illimitable toasts and barely veiled pederastic jokes as the wine flows, ordinary rules of propriety and decorum loosen up and the hellions grow ever more excitable in the presence of imperially-connected fame and rare freedom of conduct.
Something of the apothecary’s potion must still run in my veins. The Refectory dining hall is lit by fluted enclosed torches and the night outside is windy, zephyrs invade the hall and flicker the torch flames despite their bronze and copper shells, rolling the light phantasmally back and forth as though by mischievous design to alternately overbrighten and engorge the hall with complex moving shadow.
All the true aspects of the beings gathered here are suddenly revealed to me in tableaux-glimpses as the fiery glow waxes and wanes. I shudder as I see clearly the misshapen and malignant down-descending spirits that inhabit so many of the shouting laughing bodies before me. Dark and twisted and morphean they turn and mutate through their guises in the flesh-shells where they have made their homes, watchful for unwelcome attention. I have to keep shifting my appalled gaze to avoid their notice lest unconscious hostilities be stirred against me – for the malevolence of debased souls never sleeps.
A few are different, ascending presences of finer quality shining within bodies young and old and so much more intent on each other than my longing vision. Satureus is one of them and so is Ovid, his inner light is a palpable influence in the hall and indeed wherever he goes. Jealousy consumes me as I see them talking and laughing in happy fellowship, two kindred beings who have found each other as naturally as fertile soil and gardener. I burn for Master Satureus. I must somehow bring him away from the Great Luminary.
Grabbing a pitcher of wine from a passing slave I weave my way through the hooting gobbling mass of smelly youth and brazenly walk up to the high table, a serious infraction of the hall etiquette, but Didymus and the rest are too bibulous to notice or care. I clunk the pitcher down on the table respectfully but emphatically.
It is Ovid who notices first and raises an eyebrow with a slow and amused but exquisitely patrician tolerance. I was full of the chutzpah but suddenly now struck almost dumb as Satureus also notices and grins playfully. I can see myself through their eyes as clearly as I behold them before me.
A little too thin, a little too dark and sharp-featured. But for my youth I might seem saturnine. My dark complexion unusual even in this sun-burnt land I inherit from my mother, a Haifan princess long dead in childbirth. She was famed not so much for her also-celebrated beauty but for an indomitable will that literally haunts us still, for her shade refuses to leave our house and maddens my father with her persistence despite repeated unsuccessful exorcisms.
My eyes through, that is what they remark most on. I have royal Judean and Greek blood in me from a distaff line of Pericles himself and I carry myself with that intrinsic regal bearing among these pale hirsute money-grubbing peasants, but my eyes truly command attention and, in the unusually perceptive, fear. For they are leonine.
Yellow and deep and alert even in my sleep, her first sight of them caused my mother to make an ancient sign of warding protection that is quite proscribed by Mosaic law and she was a devout woman. My father’s grandfather had them too I am told, he was very bold and would have stared down the Gorgons themselves.
Ill-starred too, they say. He betrayed a Greek army to the Medes. My father does not like what my eyes see of his dealings and foibles (particularly those lithe Syrian prostitutes) and the superb but demanding educational curriculae of the Library is a perfect excuse to have me out of the house most of the time of the day, rather than engage private tutors.
Ovid looks long and penetratingly into my eyes and I find myself lost in his own, two opalescent orbs with the wisdom of universes drifting through them. I hardly notice Satureus whisper my name and status in his ear or Didymus looking splenetic. For the first time I feel genuine awe of another human being and want to fall to my knees and beg for the gift of the gods he has been given in my place, how I myself might contrive to get it.
“Sire Ovid, lord of poets, I have read all your work and am enthralled. Might I be so bold as to ask your eminence a question of existence?”
He is used to flattery and is a well-travelled man of the world used to the very highest quality of social company. Nevertheless I think my flowery compliment, which does not descend quite into servility which would immediately bore him, surprises and gratifies His Luminosity and he pays closer attention as I had hoped.
“Satureus, you have some remarkable flibbertigibbets fawning around your ankles. Ask away, youngster.”
A barbed invitation is the best kind. Emboldened I speak a little louder in my nervousness than I intend.
“I too believe in Metamorphoses. I have concluded from my studies that human will is a gift of the gods and like unto the sun shining down on the lands that feed us, the human mind and spirit can be stimulated to its own metamorphosis by some invisible ray of great power which animates us.”
I suddenly realise the top table has gone silent and listens intently as Ovid stirs ever so slightly and unhurriedly, never taking his eyes from me.
“That is indeed so, Simon Antonius. What you refer to has many names in history but is generally known as the Divine Light. Both our origin and that of the gods is reputed to be found in it and some say that to know and achieve oneness with the Divine Light is to achieve metamorphosis upon higher planes.”
Didymus watches me with a combination of amazement and affronted dignity, his splenetics giving way to something purplish. A mere stripling presuming to interrogate the great man like he was an equal?! But I burn with the desire to know from this paragon of a mind and talent and as though my voice is being controlled by some outside intellection I cannot prevent myself demanding more.
“Sire Ovid, are there not intelligences, entities that bridge those higher planes and the Earth, and which men can learn from, to become like unto them?”
Bronze-Guts is really scandalized now, turning from purple to puce with his much-feared apoplexy. Ovid stares at me for a long, eternal-seeming moment, then at Satureus.
“Yes, Simon. These are the angels and demons of mythology. You are indeed unusually well-read. But these entities are a subject not only esoteric but with elements of danger, and that is something we can discuss at greater length during my stay. I will speak to your tutor about arranging it. Now off with you and enjoy yourself less seriously!”
Ovid dismisses me with a gentle but firm gesture not to be disobeyed. As I bow with the utmost humility and go I hear Didymus croaking out some outraged apology and promise of swift chastisement but Ovid politely cuts him off and the high table soon gets back to its revels. The incident has passed almost unnoticed by the rest of the hall but as soon as I return to my bench seat little Sejanus looks at me with open-mouthed ugly admiration and young Philo tugs at my sleeve.
He wants to know if I could get a look at the forbidden demonological scrolls in the secret library about which he has been patiently collecting references and anecdotes from other sources. Could I use Ovid’s influence on Didymus and Satureus to make a bid to get a glimpse at what the emperor himself has declared must not be seen or spoken of?
Poor little Hebrew low-born Philo. Satureus has been letting me read them on safe nights for months and you will get only what I decide you should see.
I tell him I’ll try.
Eventually the celebrations run down and one by one the tutors and scholars drift away from the high table. Ovid himself is ushered by Didymus to his private apartments, leaving the slaves to clear the detritus and scold the remaining boys off to their cells. I meet Satureus in the torch shadows of the colonnade and after our visit to the perpetually open shrine of Demeter we go leisurely to his rooms unseen, entering separately. We are both in the grip of torrential passion from the wine and waiting, fall into fevered urgent acts of love immediately and I exult in his embrace.
No inhibitions between us, Satureus and I grapple together and become one being, all alight and glistering with one pure unadulterated intensity of joined souls. Sobbing with the power of it I cling to him and we only reluctantly cool and diverge from the one flesh and spirit we have become. He glows with his exertions like a god in his prime and I feel that at his touch I will burn away to cinders.
“My beautiful ambitious little Simon, you have disturbed the natural order of things.”
We lie drowsily together on the exotic skins and pelts he collects, a small fire flickering silver and vermilion overtones on his alabaster skin as he reclines like Adonis. An antique brazier slowly hisses out puffs of incense and a powerful narcotic infusion that induces eerie visions which I have stolen from my father’s private store.
“Is Big Brain that pleased and Bronze Guts that pissed-off?”
He laughs and slaps my rump affectionately.
“Hellion. Those nocturnal eyes of yours see too much too clearly. Yes, you will have an interview with Ovid in the next few days. Our primordial sage is against it, of course. He wants me to tan your pretty little hide for you.”
Narcotic is working on me. I see Satureus as Apollo and Bacchus and Dionysus and Narcissus and Hercules, convulsed with his lover in desire and virile power. But in the vision his lover is not me.
“What is he so afraid of?”
Satureus looks at me with real seriousness and as he shifts, gently disengaging with me, he is a Chimaera of fantastic beauteous forms. He pours some wine for both of us and hands me some scrolls (I have returned the pre-Chaldean one to him) from a concealed wall cavity.
They are copies of certain early Sumerian books and works of unknown origin on the Creation and role of daemonaical hierarchies in the formation of the world. He watches me closely as I pore through them, my part-drugged mind suddenly alert and energised in total sobriety. The clarity and detail of the books are variable and strewn with obscurantist metaphors, parables and ritualistic symbolism and formalized language but I make immediate connections with my other learning and could use Philo too, perhaps.
So absorbed in my new thoughts and plans have I become I realize I have forgotten Satureus or my surroundings entirely and when I recover from my initial exhilaration he is looking at me almost sadly. Gone are the shifting visions – he is a mortal man again, curiously vulnerable and fragile-seeming. To cover a sense of uneasiness which I can clearly see he again gets up and pours us some of his remarkable Dalmatian wine, which I suspect to be laced with the Chinese opiates that always come with the same faraway Phoenician cargoes.
“I see it is everything you had hoped for, Simon.”
“Master, this will take my studies of the invisible powers so much further. I’m convinced I can learn enough perhaps to approach learned sorcerers for more.”
“But did you also hear the admonition of Ovid?”
“He’s right to point out the possible dangers Master, but I have some affinity to these spheres which I cannot explain. I have to explore them.”
“Simon, I have lived at the Library for many years now, in fact I grew up here and there are many powerful secrets contained in its collections. What you are following are indeed the most dangerous and Didymus sees this awareness in you, although he does not yet suspect the true high degree of insight you’ve achieved. That is what he fears – powers and forces and disruptions from the Ulterior that cannot be rationalized. And more importantly, a perception by the city authorities the Library sanctions the forbidden. The empire has made these studies crimes and what you are engaged on, to them, is knowledge and power they will crucify and kill to suppress.”
“But you have helped me.”
“Yes, because you are a remarkable scholar and I love the passion in you which so few of the boys here possess. Only a small number know the privilege they have in being here, it’s a prison to them or a just a stepping stone they can’t wait to jump from. You are different.”
That’s true. My mother first accused me of sorcery –quite correctly- when I was six. A simple case of childish levitation. I started out early.
“I’m different in another way, Master Satureus. I love you and I am not fickle. I would never betray this or the honour you are doing me. When I get this insight and this power I will be your protector as you protect me now.”
He kisses me tenderly on the brow, lies back and draws himself up against the door like a sentinel, winking as he drifts off to sleep.
“My sweet, diabolically gifted child-man. Read now, no one will disturb us this night, for I’ve set other eyes out as well. Take all you can from those books and hide them again when the dawn comes and you must go.”
Time vanishes for me as I turn my full attention to the proscribed and illicit fragments from the dawn of civilization Satureus has patiently and accurately copied for me at such terrible risk to himself. Stories, myths, anecdotes, rituals, incantations and fearful broken narrations of dreadful supernatural intelligences and their powers of subtlety and deception, insights to their motives and pleasures and the ways to reach them in the dark Abyssal.
Voices of demons and angels and entities without name or definition, the dominions and hierarchies and vast pitilessly chaotic Imperiums among them in the great zones of shadow where humans may not enter, recordings of terrible words and wisdoms and prophecies and revelations and dire threats spoken to affrighted travellers and awestruck magicians in accounts so old the languages and nations of the originals are long vanished into doubtful apocrypha.
Over the next few hours I learn what might have taken years otherwise. Yet so much is implied rather than explicit and there are such profound omissions of what I truly need to know. As the dawn comes softly I still burn insatiably to know more.
Concealing the scrolls again and leaving I quietly open the door taking great care not to in the least disturb still-sleeping Satureus, but recoil as there is an upsurge clatter and something more or less humanoid scuttles away from the door into the gloom. There is no doubt in my mind, it was hunched up against the portal. Looked like Philo but I cannot be sure.