As I contemplated the Cup of Nestor in its glass case at Villa Arbusto I thought about the kind of story La piccola principessa might tell about it. Of course she’d come up with an interesting one, perhaps several. That was her first instinct. What existed in the real world usually wasn’t exciting enough for her, so she was compelled to improve on it.
“Now, John,” she’d say, “listen. Okay?”
Back in the Greek Geometric period she was Ionia, the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant on the island of Doliche, which in later centuries came to be called Euboea. Doliche used to be part of the mainland, but an earthquake broke it off like a fragment of pottery. Ionia and her father and mother lived in a mansion at Chalcis, near the Euripus Strait, which was famous for its extraordinary changes of tide. At one moment the current ran like a river in one direction, and shortly afterwards with equal velocity in the other. Overwhelming violence, back and forth.
Anyway, her father, Adrastos, (named after the king of Argos), was numb and disconsolate after the sudden death of his wife Ismeme (named after the daughter of Oedipus). Shortly after her funeral, Adrastos decided he could no longer bear to live in the mansion where he and Ismeme had shared so many tender moments. He detested the empty rooms that reminded him of his loss. He had to leave. Not just the villa, but the country itself.
A friend suggested the new mercantile colony on the Island of Pithecoussai. He lovingly described it as an unspoiled volcanic island, with a moderate climate, overgrown with vineyards and wildflowers. But Ionia objected, because she had so many good friends, not to mention battalions of eager suitors. Not one to change his mind, Adrastos replied she had no choice but to accompany him. A loving daughter always obeys her father’s commands, he said softly. To do otherwise is to offend the gods.
On Pithecoussai Adrastos built a fabulous white villa of marble, with hot baths, fragrant gardens, intricate floor mosaics and a balcony overlooking the bay of Montano. His business thrived, and he attracted the attention of many young women, nubile daughters of the early wealthy settlers from Euboea. But not even the most beautiful of them could turn Adrastos’s head. He was still grieving for his lost Ismeme.
Because Ionia loved her father very much, she decided to find a way to ease his suffering. Now magic spells, incantations, and secret potions were something her mother had known all about. With a whispered spell, Ismeme had won Adrastos’s heart, hadn’t she?
Now Adrastos had a favorite clay cup, made in Rhodes, that he used when he and his friends held noisy, laugh-filled symposion. One night Ionia took the cup into her room, and with great care scratched the lines of a spell her mother had taught her.
I am the goodly cup of Nestor;
Whomsoever drinks of me,
Faircrowned Aphrodite immediately will seize.
And then Ionia invited some of her new friends to come meet her father. She summoned the servant to pour wine into Adrasto’s cup. He did not notice the faint scratched lines, because in his advancing age his vision was not good for close objects. He drank down the cup’s contents. And of course the moment he did that Faircrowned Aphrodite did indeed immediately seize.
He suddenly saw his daughter in a new light. His eyes blazed, and Ionia in turn got all flustered in a way that was at once exciting and terrifying. She said to herself, Oh, my. What have I done now? I’m always getting into trouble!
No, wait. That won’t work. Let’s not go there.
Okay, take two.
Daddy drank, then was gripped by an obsessive passion for one of Ionia’s friends, named…
Elektra! ("Bright, shining," the sister of Orestes).
Yes, much better.
Elektra and Adrastos were married in an enormous ceremony attended by thousands of the islanders as well as guests from their homeland. Nine months afterward Elektra bore Adrastos a son. They named him Athanasios (meaning "immortal")
The attending servants whispered that giving an infant that kind of name was, shall we say, tempting fate. And they were right. When Athanasios was 12, he fell ill with a mysterious malady that left him in a coma. Eventually he died.
According to custom, Adrastos had his young son’s corpse cremated. And in a paroxysm of grief he violently threw into the stone tomb a number of clay vases and jars, and, of course, his favorite cup. It was the last piece of crockery to shatter.
Not too long afterward the so-called extinct volcano on Pithecoussai named Mt. Epomeo rumbled, shook the ground and spewed awesome bursts of magma and smoke. Adrastos packed up, took his family back to Doliche. They never returned.
* * *
Later I stopped in the museum’s lobby and bought a handsome replica of “The Three Graces,” Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia, the mythological daughters of Zeus.