Chapter 30 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
On the day of my Ordeal, I rested, prayed and took a purifying bath, then dressed as usual in my roughspun tunic and cloak for the preparatory sacrifice in honor of the Goddess. This took place in the relatively spacious room where I had first met Thana. The chamber was an all-purpose area in Fourth Region, used for meetings and rites alike.
Thana and I waited as a procession of local sisters came forward. There were Anna and Velia, Prisca and Ulpia, Nephele and Megilla. Even Cerberus was there, waving his tail so enthusiastically that his rear end wiggled back and forth. The women sang a hymn to the Goddess which I did not recognize:
Fiery queen of stars and air,
Mother of rock and stream;
You inhabit the Seven Hills,
You shine below the Earth:
Accept our gift, accept our gift,
And be our saving Guide.
Anna led forward one of the Romalian goats, a young male who had been reared for this purpose. His horns were decorated with fluffy wool fillets, and his brown pelt was spotted with white. The altar was a block of tufa which had been hollowed out to make it lighter and more portable. It was crudely carved with female faces, one on each of four sides, and the top was slightly concave. The sisters, I noticed, did not use salted meal for their immolation, instead flicking droplets of water onto the kid, before Thana cut a few hairs from his forelock to make a beginning. Anna and Ulpia held him above the altar while Prisca expertly cut his throat so that his lifeblood wetted it. They laid him on the floor, still quivering as the light faded from his eyes. Instead of extracting his liver to inspect it for signs, we waited in holy silence as Thana pulled out her token and consulted the Goddess.
After a few minutes, she replaced the token and said, “I put the question this way: If the sacrifice is acceptable, may we know the start and endpoints for Lucia’s Ordeal on this night? The answer was received: The sacrifice is accepted. Lucia is to begin at the vault of her rebirth, pause at the Shrine of the Sown One, and end at my Shrine Beneath the Rocks.”
There was a murmur of surprise and interest. The route was not to be discussed in my hearing, but I guessed that they were commenting on the way the itinerary required me to visit all four Regions. From the vault near the Hill Gate, I must make my way south to the only tunnel which connected Fourth Region to the rest of the network. This would put me beneath Caesar’s old neighborhood of the Subura in Third Region, and the road to the Forum called the Argiletum. From there, I must cross Region Two and the Palatine hill to get to the Circus Maximus with its subterranean shrine of the Sown One, and finally proceed to the Aventine in First Region, where the healing shrine of the Good Goddess was located, the one which had sheltered Finola when she fled her violent husband. It was called the Shrine Beneath the Rocks because it lay beneath an outcropping on the hill, but it also had a subterranean component. The last two legs of the journey would be the most difficult, for I knew the turnoff to reach the Sown One, yet I had not visited the place itself, and I had only once been to the Shrine Beneath the Rocks.
Whether I was capable of completing this route, I did not know. I worried that I should have taken more time in training. After my misadventure in Second Region, Thana had offered me a chance to change my chosen date, but I refused. Now I stood by anxiously as the kid was skinned and Thana burned a few bits of meat on the altar with prayers and libations of wine. Then small cubes of meat were threaded onto spits and held over the remains of the fire, to be distributed while the rest of the animal was carried off to the kitchen. No part of him would be wasted, and most would be used in soups, the most economical option. Even the bones could be boiled for a nourishing broth.
Now that the sacrifice was complete, the sisters prepared me for the Ordeal by separating my hair into six braided sections, and wrapped a long wool band about my temples, very much as though I were a Vestal. I was a given a bag containing a water flask, a hunk of bread and a handful of almonds. Then we walked in procession all the way to the entrance of the vault. Anna and Ulpia passed through first, and when I too had squirmed into the vault, they blindfolded me. Before the cloth covered my eyes, I noticed that the room looked just as it had on the day of my execution. Nothing had been touched.
“Rest and prepare yourself as we withdraw, Lucia,” called Thana from the other side. “May the Goddess go with you.” I heard Cerberus barking, perhaps urging Anna to return so they could go off to enjoy the stew made with meat, a luxury as rare in Romalia as it was for the poor in Roma. Then the procession set off again, singing.
I was eager to begin, but I took Thana’s advice this time and lay on the couch in the vault, composing myself for what lay ahead. I tried to visualize the entire route, but it was too complex. I would have to trust in the moment, and let each part of the journey rouse its own memories. I began a formal prayer to the Goddess to be propitious and come near in my time of need, but my voice trailed off, for I had the eerie sensation that She was already with me. There was no sound of a footstep, no disturbance in the air; yet I knew that I was not alone.
“Let us go,” I said. I inched through the narrow tunnel and retraced my path, trailing the fingertips of my right hand along the wall. In the distance I could hear the sisters’ merrymaking. I knew this Region well, and kept a deliberate pace. There was no time limit, but I estimated that the entire journey would take about four hours, or five if I traveled quite slowly. If I got lost, it might be much longer.
We walked for a long time, counting tunnel mouths, winding our way back and forth, feeling for niches, stopping to smell the air, sensing the rise and fall of the tunnel floor. Every now and then I spoke aloud to Her, remarking on this or that feature. “There should be a downshaft ahead very soon…Yes! We are almost through Third Region. And there are two steps up when we take the next right.” Whenever I paused, unsure of the way forward, a memory emerged quite naturally, like a reply, though not in words. It felt more like a nudge inside my head. A few times I stopped for a drink of water or a bite of bread, but the Goddess needed no refreshment. She wanted me to keep moving.
By the time we reached the turnoff for the shrine of the Sown One, I was very tired, but fear woke me from the daze in which I had been calmly moving forward. Slowly I proceeded, feeling my way gingerly in this new territory. I reached what seemed to be a dead end. Surely this could not be the shrine? Blindly feeling the surface of the wall before me, I noticed a rounded protrusion and followed its contours. It was a tufa wheel! Panic flooded me, for I could hardly expect to be able to roll it out of the way and unblock the door.
“What now?” I asked. “Is it over?” I sat down heavily with my back to the wall, beside the wheel. Tears stung my eyes and began to leak onto the blindfold. My face itched. I was strongly tempted to rip off the cloth band and give up.
No! I told myself silently, and addressed the Goddess aloud. “You would not have chosen a task I cannot complete. The sisters too, they know there is a way to accomplish this. Let us find it.” So I set to again, sliding my hands over the entire outline of the wheel, noting its dimensions and rough surface. It was between three and four feet tall, and not too thick. “I might be able to budge it an inch or two,” I said hopefully, and felt the nudge of agreement. “But an inch or two won’t get me through the door.”
At last I thought to touch the track beneath, and realized that the wheel was carefully balanced on a raised level space only a couple of inches long. On each side of this space, the track sloped gently down toward the tunnel wall. This was a clever way to allow a lone visitor from our side to move the wheel, while keeping it secure from the other side, yet the designers must have envisioned a larger and stronger sister than me. Taking a deep breath, I knelt, put my shoulder to the wheel and pushed hard. Nothing happened. I pushed again, but the wheel was obstinate. Meanwhile She waited patiently, as I grew more frantic. There formed in my mind the image of a woman bracing her feet against the tunnel wall and pushing on the wheel. Extending one foot behind me, I discovered that the wall was close enough to touch. I wedged myself awkwardly between wall and wheel, and used both legs to push as hard as I could, painfully scraping my cheek and shoulder on the rough stone in the process. The wheel shifted fractionally and rolled the rest of the way, hitting the other wall with a heavy thud. I fell to the ground right in front of the rounded, narrow entryway.
“I won’t be able to put it back,” I said apologetically, as I crawled through.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Ancient animal sacrifice typically involved a feast for the participants. Certain portions of the victim were set aside for the gods, but most of the meat was boiled or roasted, then eaten. These were festive occasions to which the hosts invited all their friends. The Romalians practice a modified version because they need to limit their use of fire.