The Mythmakers – Cyprus Meets Paul

(A second sample chapter, by Joyce Arthur, May 2002; extended but unfinished Nov 2010)

Several years after Saul’s newfound vision, he helps establish a religious community in Antioch, Syria. Renaming himself “Paul”, he begins his long journey to Rome, stopping and preaching at various places. He visits Cyprus first.

Kallia prepared for her first lover in the antechamber of the temple, adjusting her elaborately-woven cap over her hair. Carefully, she tucked away stray curls until only a few tidy ringlets were left to frame her face. Her earrings gleamed as they dangled in the light, shaped into perfectly formed olive leaves from solid gold. The polished silver mirror reflected back her calm confidence, and she smiled with pride and anticipation.

To serve the goddess on this day, the feast day of Adonis, was a high honour for any young woman. But Kallia was the firstborn daughter of Ariane, the great priestess. Ariane’s oracles had been so strong and true that important people had come from afar to worship at the temple of Aphrodite and receive the goddess’ wisdom firsthand. Her mother was gone now, her service to the goddess cut short by an illness that came and stole her life away within a few short months last winter. Kallia closed her eyes and sent a prayer to the goddess, asking that the passion and wisdom that had belonged to her mother now be passed on to her.

Kallia’s initiate ceremony at dawn this morning had been attended by the governor of Cyprus himself, Sergius Paulus. It was a measure of her status and her future promise as an oracle that a Roman governor would take such notice of her. Her sisters had giggled and whispered among themselves, because the governor was often admired by Cypriot ladies for his striking looks and tall frame. And now here he was, awaiting her in Aphrodite’s holy sanctuary, the first to honour Aphrodite by sanctifying the new priestess. Other lovers would follow through the day, coming to make offerings to Aphrodite, but she knew this first one would be special.

She rose smoothly from the brightly painted marble bench, the vertical folds of her fine linen chiton swishing to the floor. Elaborate green and golden designs were woven across the hems and edges of her tunic, and a soft rope of wool, dyed golden to match her cap, held the tunic in place just under her breasts. Her laced sandals tapped softly against the mosaic floor as she moved to the doorway, towards her future.

Sergius Paulus was the Roman procurate of Cyprus, sent from Rome to govern the island two years ago. Paulus was rather indifferent to religion, but he easily went along with, and even enjoyed, the rituals and traditions of his adopted homeland. He was bemused by the astonishing array of gods and goddesses that people worshipped throughout the empire—Zeus, Adonis, Cybele, Isis, Mithra, Jupiter, Aphrodite—weren’t they all the same really? Gods of war, gods of commerce or agriculture, goddesses of wisdom or fertility, resurrected saviours, and gods born of virgins. Every country had its own versions. What did it matter what names they were called? For now, the only thing on his mind was honouring the one called Aphrodite, through her beautiful new priestess, Kallia of Paphos.

Their eyes met and locked as she crossed the threshold into the sanctuary, her heady perfume reaching his senses in an instant. That Kallia looked so much like her mother caused a small stab of fear deep within him. The beauty and power of Ariane had truly astonished him after his arrival, and even though he had governed firmly and peacefully, the people of Cyprus gave their loyalty and love to Ariane, above all. But he had never gone to her or participated in a temple ceremony till now, after her death. He wasn’t sure what had made him come finally, whether his curiosity had simply gotten the better of his resentment, or whether he hoped to gain more favour with the Cypriots by forging an alliance with the person who might well become the next great oracle of the Greco-Roman world.

They did not say a word, but the silence was filled with their hopes and fears. She came to him, smiling, and they undressed each other slowly. He trembled from fear or desire, he wasn’t sure which. She took him into her arms, smelling of roses, and her touch electrified him, her body melding him to her as her scent mingled with his sweat. Her sighs of pleasure lit him on fire with a passion he had forgotten he was capable of, and he was seized with a strong need to explore and worship every inch of her. She became the goddess. She was Aphrodite. His doubts and fears fell away as he was transported to heaven.

***************

The following week, Paulus sent a messenger to the temple. It was an invitation to Kallia to visit the governor’s house in Paphos for an unusual event—to listen to the words of a strange band of Jewish philosophers from Syria. Word had spread quickly through the island since their arrival two weeks ago on a merchant ship from Antioch. The trio had preached in the synagogues in Salamis and Nicosia, where they had created much controversy, even arousing the interest of the pagan communities with their stories of a new divine saviour. The Jews were up in arms—they called it blasphemy, and actually threw the preachers out of the temple in Nicosia. Now they were sailing along the coast to the port of Paphos, on the very western tip of Cyprus, because the Governor Paulus had summoned them so he could hear their message.

The sun blazed hot and dry over Paphos that day, with the promise of many rainless weeks to come. The vendors in the marketplace shaded their stalls with tarps of rough fabric, while naked children ran laughing through the narrow streets, their mothers walking leisurely in small groups, their muted conversation brought low by the stifling heat. Now and then, a breeze from the bay broke through and wafted up the gentle slope to the town. The shoreline was only partly visible through the olive groves that ringed the town, but looking east, the great Mount Olympus towered over them from the island’s centre.

Her young servants Helena and Eugenia accompanied Kallia on the trek to Paphos. They left the temple an hour or so after dawn and reached the flat plains of Paphos by late morning, but well before the sun reached its zenith. It was not an easy journey over the rocky landscape that was the foot of Mt. Olympus, but one that they were accustomed to and enjoyed. Bowers of roses and other flowers sacred to Aphrodite framed much of the 10-mile pathway that connected the temple to Paphos, filling the air with their rich fragrance.

Upon reaching the town, the three young women stopped briefly in the marketplace, where Kallia chatted with some friends she had not seen for weeks. Almost everyone at the market knew who Kallia was, since many townspeople had attended her initiate ceremony last week. As she passed by, greetings were murmured and heads bobbed in respect. “Thank you for your visit, Priestess.” “How lovely to see you, dearest Kallia!”

They soon left behind the din of the marketplace with its clattering carts, and proceeded down a wide, tree-lined promenade, which was in stark contrast to the mostly narrow streets of Paphos. Many impressive buildings, including temples and fine homes belonging to government officials, lined the street. Closer to the shore now, one could hear the sound of the waves, along with the insistent sound of chirping cicadas from the nearby scrub.

Her servants brought Kallia directly to the gates of the governor’s house at the end of the promenade, a white-washed stone building with many columns and porticos. It was too modest to be called a palace, but it was still the finest and largest building in all of Pathos. In the shaded courtyard stood fig trees and ornamental bushes, well-watered and groomed by local gardeners hired by Sergius Paulus. Stone sentries guided their path towards the entrance, where Helena and Eugenia politely took their leave so they could return to the marketplace for shopping.

Kallia entered the great hall of the governor’s mansion just as a short, wiry man emerged suddenly from an adjacent room, almost bumping into her in his haste. The two of them leapt apart instinctively and the man quickly hid his look of astonishment. “My deepest apologies, Madam,” he said with curious but hooded eyes. “I’m Saul of Tarsus. I’ve just come from Antioch, to have an audience with your esteemed governor.”

“Welcome to Paphos,” said Kallia in a soft but sure voice, as a servant of the governor suddenly appeared at her side and hovered. She ignored him and smiled openly at the foreigner. “I am Kallia of Paphos, high priestess of Aphrodite.”

Saul’s eyes narrowed slightly and he looked slightly discomfited, but he bowed briefly. “Madam, I hope that your being here means you’ll be joining the governor’s audience. I have great news to share about our one true Lord, Jesus Christ.”

“Like you, I’m also an invited guest,” said Kallia with natural enthusiasm. “I look forward to hearing you speak. How fascinating to hear about a new saviour god!I’ve heard that your god Jesus was also born of a virgin, hung on a tree, and then taken up to heaven, just like the great gods Apollo and Mithra. Is that true?”

Saul was momentarily stunned, and the servant took the opportunity to murmur something about the governor waiting, indicating that Saul and Kallia should follow him. “No!” Saul muttered darkly, averting his eyes from Kallia. The word was said forcefully, but almost under his breath and Kallia had to strain to hear him as they began walking. “Soon you will hear the truth, my lady. And if you want to save yourself from folly, the Lord Jesus will welcome you.”

In a strained silence, the two followed the servant into a corridor towards the Great Hall, where the governor waited. The gleaming white marble walls contrasted sharply with the colourful pillars and turquoise mosaic underfoot, while painted vines entwined in an intricate pattern across the arched ceiling.

The heavy doors to the Great Hall were already swung wide. As they approached the threshold, Kallia could hear and feel the buzz of excitement emanating from the large room. They paused inside the doors and stood silent a moment as they took in the scene before them. A crowd of at least 100 people milled about the hall, many of whom Kallia recognized. Some were seated near a large raised dais at the front, on which sat a gaily painted marble throne festooned with fresh flowers and greenery. There perched the governor, resplendent in a white silk toga edged with royal purple. Sergius Paulus was deep in conversation with an unobtrusive older man dressed in an ordinary wool toga, yet who commanded a strong presence all his own. Kallia immediately recognized him as Elymas, a doctor and magician much admired throughout Cyprus, and one of Sergius’ most trusted advisers. Elymas had been an intimate friend of her late mother and a father figure to Kallia. She had not seen Elymas since her mother’s death eight months ago, when he had given a powerful oration for the funeral procession. She suddenly realized how much she missed him, and decided she would invite him for an extended visit to the temple.

Kallia felt an immediate hush descend over the room and felt the eyes of the audience upon them. Sergius broke off his conversation and glanced up. Not one to stand on formal ceremony, Sergius called out in an authoritative yet friendly voice: “Welcome Saul of Tarsus!” then adding on a bemused note: “And Kallia!” She couldn’t suppress a smile realizing the spectacle that their mismatched pairing created as they entered the Great Hall together. She – young, lithe, and golden-haired – wore a pale blue chiton made of fine linen and held in place at the shoulder with a golden butterfly pin. In contrast, Saul’s stocky frame barely reached her shoulders. His plain face was weathered by years of sun and he was dressed in a coarse woolen robe of an indeterminate colour. Sergius grinned and winked at her mischievously, while many in the crowd looked amused or exclaimed softly in wonder. Kallia caught the eye of Elymas and smiled a warm greeting at him, which he returned.

Without a word or a glance, Saul left Kallia’s side and strode to the dais, confident authority belying his height. Kallia discreetly circled the crowd towards two acquaintances who beckoned her to join them near the right side of Sergius’ throne. As she did so, she noticed two other men standing on the other side of the dais, beside Elymas. They were dressed in the same rough manner as Saul and looked just as out of place, although one was taller and fairer. They looked relieved to be joined by Saul, as if they had been impatiently waiting for him. Kallia wondered what Saul had been doing just before bumping into her in the corridor outside, as she knew it was not customary for guests to wander the palace unescorted.

Saul bowed respectfully to the governor, although the bow was not well-executed and to Kallia, even perfunctory. Sergius seemed not to notice, raising his arms and giving a deep nod to signal his acknowledgement. In a strong voice, he introduced his guests to the assemblage: the philosopher preachers Barnabas of Jerusalem, Saul of Tarsus, and their assistant Silas. Barnabas, the taller man, spoke briefly and with authority, thanking the governor for the introduction. He explained that he was born a Jew in Cyprus before converting to the new religion a decade ago. He and Saul had met last year in Jerusalem after Saul’s own conversion and the two then began their missionary journey, travelling to Syria to preach what he called “the Word of the Lord.” As he went on to describe their success in Antioch where they had converted many and established a Christian church, Kallia felt surprised to realize that Barnabas, and not Saul, seemed to be the leader of this trio of preachers. Saul’s lesser role appeared to chafe on him, however, as he took to fidgeting during Barnabas’ speech, a frown on his face and eyebrows furrowed. His intense eyes darted around the room, looking everywhere except at Barnabas, and often lingering on Elymas, the doctor/magician standing at Sergius’ side.

As if sensing Saul’s impatience, Barnabas paused and turned to him with an outstretched arm.“ But my friend Saul is far more eloquent than I. With your kind consent, Saul will now tell you the exciting news of our redeemer Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world and a Saviour for us all.” As Barnabas spoke, Saul brightened and drew himself up a little taller. Still ignoring Barnabas, he directed his gaze at Sergius Paulus himself, as if focusing on a target.

With determined steps, Saul approached the governor. As he began to speak, his dark eyes flashed with undisguised passion for his cause. “My esteemed governor, and ladies and gentleman of the court – Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I come to share with you, not the wisdom of the world or of man, but the spiritual truths that God has revealed to us. We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which He decreed at the beginning of time. As it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” Saul paused, raising his eyes heavenward and dramatically lifting then slowly lowering his arms as if to bring God’s spirit down to earth. “I beseech you today to open your spiritual eyes, because the unspiritual man cannot receive God’s gifts.”

Not a sound or ripple of movement came from the audience as Saul continued his impassioned delivery. Kallia herself was engrossed as Saul described the improbable story of his conversion in the desert, about the bright blinding light and how God had spoken to him, telling him to go out and preach the Word. Then his incredible vision of God’s Spirit descending from heaven to a lower earthly plane to take on the sins of humanity, in the form of his son Jesus. Saul’s eyes flashed with anger. “But the corrupt rulers of the world failed to understand the nature of this Spirit. They repudiated him, crucified him, sent him below the earth, into the abyss of hell!” Saul paused for dramatic effect, the breathless tension of the audience increasing with each silent second.

“But he was Christ the Lord! He vanquished death!” thundered Saul. “I saw him with my own eyes, in a strong vision. Jesus rose from the bowels of the earth and ascended back into heaven to sit at the right-hand side of God!”

[To be continued…]