I sent this story out with Christmas cards in December 2009. The title is Latin, and means ‘star of the sea’ – a title attributed to both the Virgin Mary and the Egyptian goddess Isis.
I had a cold coming on.
Not ideal for such a long journey, especially a religious pilgrimage. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to approach a newborn god sneezing and spluttering, now would it? Not altogether the etiquette on these occasions.
No... no dear, there’s no reason why you should, when I haven’t told you yet. So be a darling and pour me a mug of wine – no, the amphora with the scarab, the other stuff’s dreadful – and I’ll do so directly.
That’s better. Now, where was I?
* * *
Ah, yes – leaving the Temple at Philae, doing my utmost to suppress the rebellion in my sinuses, and heading north to where our astrologers assured us a new incarnation of Horus would be born, probably. They thought it would be Horus, anyway, although it could have been Osiris. Or Ra. Or even Khepri. One of those gods who die and are reborn, anyway. The point being, for us, that he was going to be born at all.
That’s our department, you see – pregnancy and birth and motherhood. It’s very much within the remit of the priesthood of Isis.
I was eight, I think. Or was I nine? No older than that – a young slip of a neophyte. It was a great honour to be the High Priestess’s handmaiden, and to be accompanying her to meet this tiny prodigy.
We travelled the length of the Nile by boat, de-barqueing at Memphis and boarding a Syrian galley bound for Palestine. All the way down the delta and out into the sea, the star was there – a bright lantern in the sky, ahead of us and to starboard. You didn’t have to be an astrologer to notice it, I promise you.
From Jaffa we joined a party travelling overland, climbing up towards the mountains, and the capital nestling in the foothills.
Judaea wasn’t a Roman province in those days, not in the formal sense. Instead there was a client king, who had a reputation as a bit of a tyrant. We didn’t want to attract his attention, and it’s not in the nature of the priestesses of Isis to act discreetly. So we skirted Jerusalem and headed south, for where the star burned brightest.
‘All this was once ours, you know,’ the High Priestess said, though probably not to me. She wasn’t one for conversation with the novices. ‘The pharaohs ruled it, fifteen dynasties ago. The people here are descended from runaway slaves. They called this town Bit-Lahmi then.’
I don’t know why she thought it was worth making a fuss about. Every empire in the East seems to have occupied the place at one time or another, before the Romans marched in and kicked sand over everything in their usual way.
They were enforcing some kind of local census – as Romans do – but even so most of the visitors to the town were foreigners. From Ethiopia to Arabia, Alexandria to Babylon, every civilisation with astrologers seemed to have sent its representatives to rub shoulders under the pale portentous light of that star. The first people we met were a bevy of drunken Greeks, arguing with some po-faced soothsayers over whether it was Apollo or Dionysus who’d be putting in an appearance.
The taverns were heaving, of course, and so were the inns. While the High Priestess attempted to parley up accommodation for our seven-strong party, I got talking to a group from Benares, beyond the Indus, who were convinced our little godling would be an avatar of somebody called Shiva.
Eventually the innkeeper, realising that our coin was better than most, evicted a wild-bearded man who looked as if he’d been trying to pay with twigs. His Latin was horrible, and I gathered only that he was a druid from the northern fringes of the world.
Even so, the innkeeper said, he could house three of us at the most. The High Priestess insisted on keeping a handmaid, so I was permitted to stay along with the Temple’s senior midwife, whose expertise she thought it best to keep at hand. Our four companions turned wearily back for Jerusalem.
* * *
It was a complete washout, of course – there was no newborn god. The only baby born under that star was little Yeshua, whose parents were only in town for the census. They were a nice enough couple, Yosef and Miryam, though he was quite a bit older than she was. Accommodation being so limited they’d ended up sleeping in the stables at our inn, and our midwife helped out with the birth, just because somebody had to.
The High Priestess came down to meet him, just in case, but found to her disgruntlement that he looked entirely ordinary. ‘What kind of god has a human head?’ she grumbled.
I had a sneezing fit then, startling poor baby Yeshua. I passed it off as hay fever from all the straw.
The High Priestess gave him a toy to play with – a little wooden pendant of our Lady that he clutched in his tiny fist. The stable was full of shepherds for some reason, and I think she was embarrassed at being shown up in front of them.
Because by that time the Persians had arrived, and were handing over gifts of their own.
There were three of them – priests of that dreary dualist sect they have over there, the Zoroastrians. Their deity’s very abstract, and the idea of a god being born was more or less anathema to them. They’d assumed they were coming to pay their respects to a new king, a baby destined to become the next Darius or Alexander or Julius, and bring the rest of us under Judaean rule. They wanted to start currying favour early.
Little Yeshua being – despite all the visible evidence – the only available candidate, they decided be must be the one, and handed over the tribute they’d brought. It was some inappropriate tat or other, I forget.
I got talking to one of the boys who looked after their camels. I’ve always been gregarious. (Now I think about it, it’s possible I was a little older than nine.) ‘You’re late,’ I told him teasingly. Oddly enough, my cold seemed to have cleared up completely. ‘All the other astrologers have been in town for days.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he laughed (I think we were speaking Greek). ‘Their nibs had to go to Jerusalem first, didn’t they? They thought the king would be born there. Everyone said King Herod had sons already, but of course they knew best. I said, “Hey boss, the star’s up that way, look!” but they didn’t listen.’
‘They went to Herod on the way here?’ I said. ‘And told him they were looking for a successor of his, but not one of his sons? That wasn’t very wise of them.’
The Zoroastrians had peed Herod off royally, of course, excuse my Massalian. Within the week his soldiers had orders to round up all the children in the entire region, and – well, as I said, he wasn’t a very nice man.
You just can’t trust monotheists. What kind of zealot puts all their eggs in one basket anyway?
By then we were heading home. The High Priestess had decided to give up, return to Philae and execute her pick of the astrologers. The midwife and I had both got rather fond of little Yeshua, though, and we didn’t like to leave him in Judaea with Herod on the rampage. So we persuaded the family to come back to Egypt with us.
* * *
All this was a long time ago, of course. The three of them lived in Thebes for a while, but they never really settled – they were rather strait-laced, really, and I think some of our Temple’s rites made them uncomfortable. After a year or two, when Miryam was pregnant again, they moved back to Judaea and I lost track of them.
I hear things, though. These days Alexandria’s full of disciples from some newfangled sect. Sober-faced Greeks, mostly, who talk as if a god was born in Bethlehem that night – the son of that terribly angry deity they worship in Judaea. For some reason, they don’t seem very keen on women. I’m not at all sure why – by all accounts, their prophet surrounded himself with them.
If it was him, poor Yeshua came to a terrible end. I can’t bear to think about it.
They don’t remember us, of course. They have some vague recollection that he spent his infancy around here, but all the credit for that goes to his father. He had a vision, they say. It would be rather too embarrassing, I expect, to admit that the family were smuggled out by devotees of a foreign fertility cult, and women at that.
Of all the astrologers, philosophers, priests and charlatans who were in town that night, the only ones these people mention are those Zoroastrian magi. Of course, this new sect has a lot in common with their religion – they both worship a solitary ‘good’ god and reject his evil enemy – so getting the Zoroastrians’ blessing must seem like something of a coup. The mother-goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, probably not so much.
Even so, it was us who saved their little messiah, and those three men who very nearly got him killed. Those three foolish men.
Actually, dear, I’d be glad of another top-up.
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2009.
www.infinitarian.com created and maintained by Philip Purser-Hallard.
All material © Philip Purser-Hallard 2009 except where otherwise noted, and not to be used without permission.