An excerpt from The Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
I am posting the below because of a subject brought to my attention by Anna.
The subject concerned a mother of Marines, of the letter she sent to be posted here. There is no use quoting it, you might as well read it from start to finish before continuing on. In short, I wrote a comment on Anna’s blog, and in doing so, I remembered this story written by Pressfield. It is a minor story at the end of the epic recount of the Three Hundred at Thermopylae, but I think it is directly important to the subject at hand.
“What had the Spartan king to say of women’s courage, and how did your master, Dienekes, in fact relate it to his young friends and proteges?”
The man Xeones propped himself with effort, and assistance from myself and the officers, upright upon his settle. Summoning his strength, he drew a breath and resumed;
I will impart this tale to you, my friends, as my master related it to me and to Alexandros and Ariston at the Hot Gates—not in his own voice, but in that of the lady Paraleia, Alexandros’ mother, who recounted it in her own words to Dienekes and the lady Arete, only hours after its occurrence. The time of the conveying of the lady Paraleia’s tale was an evening three or four days before the march-out from Lakedaemon to the Hot Gates. The lady Paraleia had betaken herself for this purpose to the home of Dienekes and Arete, bringing with her several other women, all mothers and wives of warriors selected for the Three Hundred. None of the women knew what the lady wished to say. My master stood on the moment of excusing himself, that the ladies may have their privacy. Paraleia, however, requested that he remain.
He must hear this too, she said. The ladies seated themselves about Paraleia. She began:
“What I tell you now, Dienekes, you must not repeat to my son. Not until you reach the Hot Gates, and not then, until the proper moment. That hour may be, if the gods so ordain, that of your own death or his. You will know it when it comes. Now attend closely, Dienekes, and you, ladies.
“This forenoon I received a summons from the king. I went at once, presenting myself within the courtyard of his home. I was early; Leonidas had not arrived from his business of organizing the march-out. His queen, Gorgo, however, awaited upon a bench in the shade of a plane tree, apparently intentionally. She welcomed me and bade me sit. We were alone, absent all servants and attendants.
‘You are wondering, Paraleia,’ she began, ‘why my husband has sent for you. I will tell you. He wishes to address your heart, and what he imagines must be your feelings of injustice at being singled out, so to speak, to bear a double grief. He is keenly aware that in selecting for the Three Hundred both Olympieus and Alexandros he has robbed you twice, of son as well as husband, leaving only the babe Olympieus to carry on your line. He will speak to this when he comes. But first, I must confide in you from my own heart, woman-to-woman.’
“She is quite young, our queen, and looked tall and lovely, though in that shadowed light exceedingly grave.
” ‘I have been daughter of one king and now wife to another,I Gorgo said. ‘Women envy my station but few grasp its stern obligations. A queen may not be a woman as others. She may not possess her husband or children as other wives and mothers, but may hold them only in stewardship to her nation. She serves them, the hearts of her countrymen, not her own or her family’s. Now you too, Paraleia, are summoned to this stern sisterhood. You must take your place at my shoulder in sorrow. This is women’s trial and triumph, ordained by God: to abide with pain, to endure grief, to bear up beneath sorrow’s yoke and thus to endow others with courage.’
“Hearing these words of the queen, I confess to you, Dienekes, and you, ladies, that my hands trembled so that I feared I may not command them—not alone with the foreknowledge of grief but of rage as well, blind bitter fury at Leonidas and the heartlessness with which he decanted the double measure of sorrow into my cup. Why me? my heart cried in anger. I stood upon the moment of giving voice to this outrage when the sound of the gate opening came from the outer court, and in a moment Leonidas himself entered. He had just come from the marshaling ground and bore his dusty footgear in his hand.
Perceiving his lady and myself in intimate converse, he divined at once the subject of our intercourse.
“With apology for his tardiness he sat, thanking me for presenting myself so punctually and inquiring after my ailing father and others of our family. Though it was plain he bore a thousand burdens of the army and the state, not excepting the prescience of his own imminent death and the bereavement of his beloved wife and children, yet as he took his bench he dismissed all from his mind and addressed himself to me alone with undiverted attention.
” ‘Do you hate me, lady?’ These were his initial words. ‘Were I you, I would. My hands would now be trembling with fury hard-suppressed.’ He cleared a space upon his bench. ‘Come, daughter. Sit here beside me,’
“I obeyed. The lady Gorgo moved subtly closer upon her settle. I could smell the king’s sweat of his exercise and feel the warmth of his flesh beside me as, when a girl, I had known my own father’s when he had called me to his counsel. Again the heart’s surfeit of grief and anger threatened to take me out of hand. I fought this back with all my force.
‘ ‘The city speculates and guesses,’ Leonidas resumed, ‘as to why I elected those I did to the Three Hundred. Was it for their prowess as individual men-at-arms? How could this be, when among champions such as Polynikes, Dienekes, Al-pheus and Maron I nominated as well unblooded youths such as Ariston and your own Alexandros? Perhaps, the city sup’ poses, I divined some subtle alchemy of this unique aggregation. Maybe I was bribed, or paying back favors. I will never tell the city why I appointed these three hundred. I will never tell the Three Hundred themselves. But I now tell you. ” ‘I chose them not for their own valor, lady, but for that of their women.’
“At these words of the king a cry of anguish escaped my breast, as I understood before he spoke what further he would now say. I felt his hand about my shoulder, comforting me. ” ‘Greece stands now upon her most perilous hour. If she saves herself, it will not be at the Gates (death alone awaits us and our allies there) but later, in battles yet to come, by land and sea. Then Greece, if the gods will it, will preserve herself. Do you understand this, lady? Well. Now listen.
” ‘When the battle is over, when the Three Hundred have gone down to death, then will all Greece look to the Spartans, to see how they bear it.
” ‘But who, lady, who will the Spartans look to? To you. To you and the other wives and mothers, sisters and daughters of the fallen.
” ‘If they behold your hearts riven and broken with grief, they, too, will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed, not alone enduring your loss but seizing it with contempt for its agony and embracing it as the honor that it is in truth, then Sparta will stand. And all Hellas will stand behind her.
” ‘Why have I nominated you, lady, to bear up beneath this most terrible of trials, you and your sisters of the Three Hundred? Because you can.’
“From my lips sprang these words, reproving the king: ‘And is this the reward of women’s virtue, Leonidas? To be afflicted twice over, and bear a double grief?
“On this instant the queen Gorgo reached for me, to offer succor. Leonidas held her back. Instead, yet securing my shoulder within the grasp of his warm arm, he addressed my outburst of anguish.
” ‘My wife reaches for you, Paraleia, to impart by her touch intelligence of the burden she has borne without plaint all her life. This has ever been denied her, to be simply bride to Leonidas, but always she must be wife to Lakedaemon. This now is your role as well, lady. No longer may you be wife to Olympieus or mother to Alexandros, but must serve as wife and mother of our nation. You and your sisters of the Three Hundred are the mothers now of all Greece, and of freedom itself. This is stern duty, Paraleia, to which I have called my own beloved wife, the mother of my children, and have now as well summoned you. Tell me, lady. Was I
“Upon these words of the king, all self-command fled my heart. I broke down, weeping. Leonidas pulled me to him in kindness; I buried my face in his lap, as a girl does with her father, and sobbed, unable to constrain myself. The king held me firmly, his embrace neither stern nor unkind, but bearing me up with gentleness and solace.
“As when a wildfire upon a hillside at last consumes itself and flares no more, so my fit of grief burned itself out. A peace settled clemently upon me, as if gift not alone of that strong arm which clasped me yet in its embrace, but of some more profound source, ineffable and divine. Strength returned to my knees and courage to my heart. I rose before the king and wiped my eyes. These words I addressed to him, not of my own will it seemed, but prompted by some unseen goddess whose source and origin I could not name.
” ‘Those were the last tears of mine, my lord, that the sun will ever see.’ “
There is a favorite saying of mine from the Japanese. It is “death is lighter than a feather, duty is heavier than mountains”. I shed many tears for those I see bearing under the weight of duty’s gravity. But I shed not one tear for the enemies of America, foreign or domestic.