‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
That is what the Priestess of Hera asks. For she has a warning to deliver.
She has gathered a fresh crop of girls before her on the steps of the Heraeum – the great temple of Hera. They sit beneath two statues, Kleobis and Biton – the very pictures of strength hewn in stone.
The girls shiver in the brothers’ shadow – the sun is setting, and Hera’s temple is high upon the crag – but they dare not move. They watch the Priestess with rapt attention. You see, these girls have been waiting for this all their short lives. They are excited; you would be too. Who hasn’t yearned for that dividing line – to know that childhood has ended, that adulthood has begun.
For the girls of Argos, the transition is demarcated here, by Hera. Tomorrow, a harvest moon will crown the night, and under its silver gleam, the women of Argos will gather, to sacrifice a white heifer in the temple. The girls will be among them. They will cross the Heraeum’s threshold. They will make their first prayer to the Queen of the Gods, and with it, they will no longer be girls, but women grown.
From then, Hera will be with them through every stage of their lives – as maidens, mothers, and matriarchs. As virgins, wives and widows. Hers will be the hand they reach for in despair. Hers will be the name they call in joy. Hers will be the grace that grants their wants and wishes.
And that is why the warning the Priestess bears is so important. That is why she asks the Muses to sing this story. For prayers to Hera, like all the deathless gods, can be fickle things. So it was for the brothers Kleobis and Biton, and their mother Clydippe, Hera’s first priestess.
The Muses song reaches back through the tarnished ages to a simpler time. Argos then is a simple place. There is no Heraeum temple upon the crag yet, merely sacred ground. There are no towering city walls to defend its approach, merely markers and fence posts. And there is no great city in the plain below, merely homes quaint and quiet.
One such home lies at the end of a long dirt road, a single seam in a rolling patchwork of fields and pastures. It is the home of Clydippe, and it is in chaos.
You see, it is festival time. That evening, a harvest moon will crown the night. Under its silver gleam, the women of Argos will gather to sacrifice a white heifer on the crag’s sacred ground.
Clydippe will lead it. It is she who will build the pyre. It is she who will wield the bronze blade. And when the cow is slain, it is she who will divide the mortal portion of meat from the deathless portion of bone, and cook it all upon the flame.
But there is a problem.
In the night, a great storm has blown through the valley, ripping up fences and putting her animals to flight. She has no oxen to drag her cart and its load of wood for the pyre. What is she to do? To make no sacrifice would be a grievous insult to Hera. She is Argos’s only god; the other deathless have not yet set foot in the valley, not even Zeus, Father of Gods and Men.
Sing then, Muses, of Kleobis and Biton, Clydippe’s children – for they are the most dutiful of sons. Without a second thought, the brothers yoke themselves to their mother’s cart. They are strong and before long, they make the foot of the crag, but that is where the true labour begins. The cart is heavy, the ascent steep and the path uneven.
There is the bite of the yoke too. It bears upon their shoulders, rending flesh first red then raw then ripped, till it is not merely sweat they leave on the path behind them, but blood too. The brothers carry on regardless– for they are the most dutiful of sons.
As they climb, the sun begins to set. Shadows from the rocks stretch and sharpen. Sandals slip, and more than once, one brother loses his grip entirely, leaving the other to strain with the weight of the whole burden.
But they make no complaint, they ask no help nor relief. Even when the other villagers from Argos gather in their wake, leading the lone white heifer, the brothers decline assistance. They vow the task is theirs alone, and it is clear to all: these are the most dutiful of sons.
So the villagers of Argos shout encouragement instead. And when finally – finally! – Kleobis and Biton reach the flat terrace that will one day seat the Heraeum, it is to the sound of deafening cheers; the admiration of Argos’s women echoes so loudly about the crag that it sounds like ten thousand voices, not a mere hundred.
The festival then can begin. As the harvest moon crowns the night, Clydippe builds the pyre. She wields the bronze blade. And when the cow is slain, she divides the mortal portion of meat from the deathless portion of bone, and cooks it all upon the flame till smoke fills the bowl of the sky.
Only then, with Hera’s appetite sated, can the prayers begin.
What did the women wish for, you ask.
Bountiful harvests? Some of them, yes.
Good marriages? Others, indeed.
Relief from their aches and anxieties, their pains and problems? The greatest number still.
But what of Clydippe? She has only one thing on her mind.
‘My sons have shown you great honour, Queen of the Gods. So, I ask that you grant them a great honour too.’ And with that prayer, Clydippe closes her eyes and falls asleep next to her sons.
Now, Hera, she agrees: Kleobis and Biton have proved themselves the most dutiful of sons. And they are worthy of a reward. But what? The goddess turns ideas this way and that. She weaves her thoughts and winds her reckonings. And she thinks upon the great heroes of Greece. Their noble deeds echo through the ages, but each is tarnished by an ignoble death. Theseus is hurled from a cliff, Jason crushed by his own ship, Perseus slain by his own sword.
Mortals, Hera concludes, cannot be trusted with their own legacies.
‘And so, that will be my reward for your sons, Clydippe. They will not wake again. Death will be granted to them in this moment, in perfect happiness, praised by all who knew them. They will never have the opportunity to besmirch their own legend. What more can mortal men ask? Build my temple here, raise statues of Kleobis and Biton, and all the world will know – as long as I am worshipped in Argos – that they were the most dutiful of sons.’
The Muses cease to sing, to dance, to play the lyre and the flute. And, in the silence that follows, the girls of Argos are left to shiver in the moonlight.
‘Heed this story a warning’, says the Priestess of Hera, ‘As women grown, you will pray to the Queen of the Gods often. But think carefully on your wants, think carefully on your wishes. And never forget that deathless gods do not see the world the way that we mortals do.’
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse