Unlocking Purple

Thomas Bulfinch, whose collections of ancient myths remained the popular standard in the United States for more than a century until the 1942 publication of Edith Hamilton’s Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, was an anti-homosexual activist as well as a lifelong bachelor. Was he in fact a closeted gay man who sought to hide behind a door of homophobic zeal? Certainly, that possibility, as well as his announced desire to remove unnecessary references to sex in his retellings of folktales, must make us question the accuracy of his adaptations. Why in Bulfinch, for instance, would Crete’s King Minos reject Scylla (the daughter of Minos’s adversary, King Nisus —not the monster paired with Charybdis in Odyssey) after she betrayed her father for love of the Cretan monarch?

Sadly, we cannot compare the Bulfinch version to one by Edith Hamilton since the latter scholar never recounts in her work this chapter of the Minos myth. So what if we try here to unexpurgate Bulfinch as we wonder if King Nisus’s offspring wasn’t a Princess Scylla at all ... but rather a Prince Seleukos? What if a Prince had sacrificed everything for love of King Minos?

 

Opening another front in his war against Athens, Crete’s King Minos laid siege to Athens’ ally Megara, a city-state of which Prince Seleukos was the heir to the throne. But Seleukos was not permitted to lead any troops in defense of the homeland because his father, King Nisus, thought the young man too introverted and sensitive for war. “You love,” the King said, “the troops too much, Seleukos. I see you wandering among them in the camp, tending to their wounds and to their worries—hardly the actions of a commander! A general must think of troops as tools, not as human beings.”

Seleukos knew his nursing of the soldiers was considered unusual by Megara soldiers as well as among the Cretan prisoners of war. But he was attracted to the work—and to the men, if truth be told, and he was so adept at applying balms and medicinals, that his therapies were, after a time, welcomed rather than mocked. The Athenians who bivouacked in Megara did not find the Prince’s laying on of his hands at all odd; indeed they encouraged him to give them relief beyond the merely curative. Seleukos was amazed to learn from the Athenians that men loving other men was commonplace in their democracy.

“But, Father,” replied Seleukos, “shouldn’t a royal support his army?”

“You have it backwards,” Nisus firmly averred. “Exactly backwards!”

“Father, this war has proceeded for half a year. Our people are dying.”

“But I shall not die! Nor will the kingdom!” Nisus raised his hand to stroke the lock of purple hair parked behind his right ear.

Seleukos knew what the Delphi oracle had prophesied: the Fates had bestowed on Nisus a shock of purple hair that prevented his being killed or the kingdom being defeated.

“So this war shall go on forever?” the Prince asked.

“Minos loses men as well. He will tire and retreat.”

“But meanwhile?”

“Meanwhile …” Nisus mused. “Why don’t you remove yourself to the castle turret where you won’t embarrass me—or yourself.”

As a child, Seleukos had often made himself more at home in the loft at the top of the turret than in the castle itself. Seleukos used to pretend to be a deity on Olympus—even though the turret was barely as high as a hill, let alone the mountain of the gods—keeping his eyes on the shepherds and the craftsmen and the families under his aegis.

Now he watched the soldiers whose bodies he had anointed and massaged. He watched them eat and train. He watched them fight for his father, and, too often, he watched them die at the point of a sword or a javelin thrust by the Cretans—thrust not infrequently by King Minos himself.

Minos was mightier than Nisus, Seleukos saw. He was more skilled than any hero on the battlefield Seleukos surveyed every day. And Minos was beautiful. His mane draped muscular shoulders, while his beard met a thick line of hair extending up from the pteruges of his skirt. His abdomen was built like the wall of a temple, Seleukos thought.

Although he still wept for the Megaran men who yielded their blood and breath at the hands of the King of Crete, Seleukos thanked the gods that so far Minos did not suffer so much as a scrape from a passing arrow. But threats still loomed as long as the war continued. Seleukos ached to think of the possibility that Minos might fall; he had fallen in love with Minos.

Seleukos soon devised a plan that could end the war, saving not only Minos from harm but the soldiers of Megara as well. If he could effect this outcome, Seleukos imagined himself kneeling before Minos to accept his royal gratitude. "You betrayed your own country," Minos would say. "How could you do such a thing?'

"I did it for you, Majesty." Seleukos mouthed the words as he envisioned the scene. "I did it for love of you, Majesty." And Minos would approach Seleukos, raise him up and embrace him and lead him to his bed.

Oh, Seleukos knew he would only be a consort for Minos and maybe not for long. But it would be enough.

That night, Seleukos crept down the circular stairs of the turret into the hallway of the castle's upper floor. He stopped in his own room to retrieve a pair of sharp scissors he used to trim his yellow beard and then proceeded to pass through the curtains at the entrance of his father's bedroom. He approached the sleeping King, carefully raised his father's purple lock in his left hand, and silently snipped it with the scissors balanced on the fingers of his right hand. He secured the lock tightly in the fist of his left hand and kept the scissors ready should he need them in his defense. He left the room and the castle and made his way under cover of darkness across the battlefield where corpses still lay after the mayhem of the daylight until he reached the royal ship of Crete in the harbor. Identifying himself  to the guards as the Prince of Megara prepared to sue for peace with Minos, he demanded to see the King.

As he had in his daydream, Seleukos bowed and knelt before Minos, newly awakened from slumber in his cabin and draped therefore only in the skimpiest of nightwear. Seleukos's eyes widened as he dropped the scissors to the deck and offered the purple lock of his father's hair to Minos. "I yield to you here the power of the House of Nisus and the principality of Megara. They are yours. The war is over."

"You betrayed your own country," Minos said. "How could you do such a thing?'

"I did it for you, Majesty." Seleukos smiled to say aloud. "I did it for love of you, Majesty."

Minos rose from his bed and approached Seleukos. He raised him, carried him to the bow of the ship, and threw him into the sea. "You are a disgrace to the gods and all of Greece. What fool would rely on the so-called love of a traitor?"

Minos ordered all his ships to set sail immediately, leaving three adjutants behind to make peace with the no-longer-invulnerable Nisus whom Minos nonetheless allowed to continue to reign, albeit without an heir, over Megara.

Seleukos, floundering about the royal ship of Crete as it departed, screamed, "You would kill me, ungrateful king for whom I gave up . . . everything. Oh, no! You shall not!"  When Seleukos grabbed the ship's rudder to slow the ship’s progress, his father’s purple lock flew upward from his hand. As it rose on the wind, the enchanted lock metamorphosed into a sea-eagle that turned, swooped, and attacked, with beak and talons, Seleukos. Forced to let go of the rudder, the Prince would have drowned had not Glaucus the sea god who often saved mortals from the oceans and from themselves decided to change him into a sea snake that swam away, on this day at least, from its natural enemy in the air.

 

Bulfinch might have considered it useful to tell the story of Seleukos and Nisus as presented here. Certainly, the tale does not glorify homosexuality; indeed, one could argue that it sorely emphasizes its woes. But it would seem that the old propagandist dare not even admit that a man's desire for a man existed in antiquity, and so, like a snake himself, he slithered far from the truth.

 

 

James Penha

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his verse appears this year in Headcase: LGBTQ Writers & Artists on Mental Health and Wellness published by Oxford UP and Lovejets: queer male poets on 200 years of Walt Whitman from Squares and Rebels. His essay "It's Been a Long Time Coming" was featured in The New York Times "Modern Love" column in April 2016. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha. James recommends the Ali Forney Center.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 09:39