Our Little Spartan Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles

The Carnea

In the early morning, a group of young girls might have been seen climbing some of the lower slopes of the hills. It was the first day of Apollo. Among the girls were Melissa, Chartas' sister, and Gorgo, who had driven her chariot so fearlessly at the last festival.

"I know where there are late roses in blossom," said Melissa. "Come with me, and I will show you." A group of the girls followed, as she climbed a nearby hill.

"Oh, how beautiful!" they exclaimed, as they came upon the bushes, bending with fragrant blossoms.

[Illustration] from Our Little Spartan Cousin by Julia D. Cowles


They filled their arms with the clusters, and when they could carry no more, they started back toward the city.

Others of the girls joined them as they went on.

"What lovely trailing vines you have found, Gorgo," said Melissa, as they met.

"But not more lovely than your roses," replied Gorgo.

The girls made a beautiful picture with their light draperies and fresh flowers. They seated themselves upon the ground and began fashioning garlands and sprays of bloom, while they talked of the festival, and of the part that they were to take.

"There are strangers in the city," said Gorgo, as she laid aside a garland. "I wish they would not come to our festivals."

"Why do you wish that?" questioned young girl, who sat beside her.

"Because," replied Gorgo, "they think it strange that we take part in the contests and the choruses. In Athens, only the men take part. The girls must stay at home. And when they do go upon the street, they must wear veils over their faces, and speak to no one."

"And do you think these strangers are from Athens?" asked Melissa.

"Yes," answered Gorgo, "I think so. They wear embroidered cloaks, and jeweled ornaments, and they talk and laugh like girls."

"But they are young, are they not?" asked another of the girls.

"They are not boys," replied Gorgo. "But you will doubtless see them for yourselves. Come," she added, rising, "it is time we returned, and our garlands are finished."

The statue of the Carnean Apollo was of wood, and for many, many years it had stood, uncovered by any temple. But it was for this rude wooden image that the girls of Sparta were preparing their offerings of flowers and garlands.

At the sound of flute and cithara, they hastened and took their places in the procession.

As the girls advanced with graceful steps and gestures, and laid their offerings upon the altar of the god, the people sang a joyous chorus of thanksgiving for the peace and plenty that Sparta had enjoyed.

The nine days of the festival were filled with sacrifices, processions, military drills, and music. It was a time of rejoicing for all the people, and especially for the boys of Sparta, for they were trained to be soldiers, and the war-like character of the Carnea pleased them mightily.

Some of the boys lingered beside the altar, after the exercises of the day.

"Think how long this image has stood!" exclaimed Theognis, as he threw himself upon the grass and picked up a flower which had fallen from one of the garlands.

"'Tis said," replied Chartas, stretching himself upon the ground beside Theognis, "that it stood here when Menelaus and Helen ruled. It must have witnessed the stealing away of Helen."

"Yes," added Dorus, "and the setting out of the fleet to bring her back from Troy."

"It makes the poems of Homer seem more real, to think of that," said Brasidas. "Perhaps it will be easier for me to remember my lines if I think of them in connection with the Sparta that I know, and of this image, which was standing then."

One part of the festival was given up to musical contests, both of singers and of those who played upon instruments, and the victors were crowned with wreaths of laurel. It was for honor that they sang, not for gifts, and the laurel wreath won for its wearer the praise and honor of all.

"I wonder if I shall ever be crowned a victor in such contests," said Theognis to himself. "Oh, I hope that I may!"

He had been thrilled by the music of the choruses, but the singing of the men who, one by one, competed for the prize, had stirred him even more.

No one knew Theognis' secret, but he had composed more than one song, which he stole away by himself to sing. No one else had heard them, but often when the boys of his company were sent to forage or to hunt, he went quietly away, and it was then that he sang his songs. His voice was strong, sweet, and flexible, and this the boys of his company knew, for they heard him sing in the choruses. Orestes alone guessed that Theognis would some day be a poet, but it was to Chartas only that he had told his belief—and Chartas had almost forgotten what he had said.

It was near the close of the festival that the foot-race of the girls took place. It was a beautiful sight, and the Spartans loved beauty, though only a free, rugged beauty pleased them.

The girls were dressed in soft white garments, and they ran like the swift, free children of nature that they were. The matrons of Sparta, their faces veiled, watched the contest.

"What would our sisters in Athens say to such sport as this?" exclaimed one of the strangers of whom Gorgo had spoken.

"They would wish to live in Sparta, I think," replied another of the group.

"But not when they had tasted the Spartan black broth and barley bread!" exclaimed a third, with a laugh.

"That is right," said the second speaker, "although one must admit that the Spartans do not live upon bread and broth only, as our Athenians claim."

"Quite true!" said the first. "But, beware," he added, in a lower tone, "some of these Spartans are scowling upon us even now. We had better hold our tongues."

The festival closed with the singing of a great paean, in which all the people joined.

When it was all over, and the city returned to its usual quiet life, with no tents standing upon the plain, and no crowds or sound of music in the streets, life seemed dull enough to the boys. But they took up their drills, and games, and music, and soon settled down to their everyday life again.