The Strange Story of the Locrian Maidens

“It was midnight, and the clear moon was rising.” So said one of the surviving fragments of the Little Iliad. Here, the Greeks got the signal. The special operators inside the Trojan Horse had succeeded in their mission and told the army to attack. The Greeks streamed through the gates of Troy. They burned the city, slaughtered the men, looted the treasures, and raped the women before dragging them off into slavery. Among them was Cassandra, who Homer calls “the loveliest daughter Priam ever bred.” She took refuge in the temple of Athena, but this did not save her. Little Ajax, King of Locris, raped her in the sanctuary, even as she clung to the statue. From this story, the Locrian Maidens were born.

Ajax and Cassandra

The Fate of Ajax and Locris

Ajax did not make it home from Troy safely. Homer tells us what happened to him in the Odyssey:

Ajax went down among his long-oared ships. Poseidon had driven him onto Gyrae’s rocks but saved him from the sea. He would have escaped, despite Athena’s hatred, but he lost his wits and boasted loudly that he had survived the deep in spite of the gods. Poseidon heard this boast, and with his trident he struck Gyrae’s rock and broke it asunder. One part held firm, but the other part, upon which Ajax sat in his blind arrogance, fell into the gulf and took Ajax with it. And so he perished, his lungs full of saltwater (4.525-36).

So Ajax paid for his crime, but this did not satisfy Athena. In Ithaca, the bard Phemius “sang the tale of the hard journeys home that Pallas Athena ordained for the Greeks on their way back from Troy” (1.343-5). In other words, the entire Greek army was the target of her enmity.

The tradition was that Locris particularly suffered her wrath. The Locrian people needed to appease the goddess and atone for the sin of their great hero and ancestor. So they began the tradition of sending their maidens to her temple in Troy.

Who Were the Locrian Maidens?

Apollodorus reported that the only way to propitiate Athena would be to send two maidens to Troy for 1,000 years. He then describes the practice:

But when they [the Locrian maidens] went to Troy, they were pursued by the local inhabitants until they entered the shrine.They did not approach the goddess, but they swept and sprinkled water on the temple.They did not exit the temple; their hair was cut, they wore single-tunics and no shoes.

When they died, the Lokrians sent others and they entered the city at night so that they would not be murdered if seen outside the precinct.

Timaios has a more detailed description:

The god prophesied that they [the Locrian people] needed to propitiate the goddess Athena in Troy each year by sending two virgins by lot and vote.The Trojans who went out to meet the women who were sent, if they caught them, they would kill them, and they would burn their bones with wild, unfruited wood from the Traronian mountain near Troy and then through the ash into the sea. And the Lokrians would have to send other women. If any of them fled, once they returned secretly into Athena’s temple, they would sweep and clean it and they would not approach the goddess or exit the shrine unless if was night. They were shaven, wearing a single tunic, and barefoot.

Both accounts agree that the Locrian people started with maidens, but later sent infants with their nurses also. By tradition two girls named Periboea and Cleopatra were the first to fall victim to this curse.

Plutarch, who wrote not long after the practice ended, said of it:

“And, truly, it has not been so long since the Lokrians stopped sending their virgins to Troy, “the girls who like the lowest slaves, with naked feet / sweep Athena’s temple around the altar / and come to great old age without a veil”—for the crime of Ajax!”

So apparently, once sent to Troy, the unfortunate Locrian maidens would stay there, abused and in destitution (if they even made it there alive), until old age.

Are these just the fanciful accounts of the ancient historians? Do we have more robust evidence of the Locrian maidens?

The Contract

As it turns out, we have an inscription of an actual contract, likely from the third century BC, for the provision of Locrian maidens:

Maintenance money . . . [shall be given] to the parents of each of the girls. Fifteen minas shall be provided to each of the pairs of girls for adornment and food, until . . . [any of the Aianteioi] who have been held by the enemy [shall be released]. Buildings of Thēmon that have been burnt down, whichever in the city . . . [shall be rebuilt] publicly by the Locrians. If any one of the Aianteioi wishes to dwell among the Locrians, the shall have freedom from taxes in the same way as . . . the Aianteioi shall all [share in] the feasts, and they shall hand over the skins and the [legs and the other portions of honour] to the priest. All the Locrians of Aiantian Locris [shall hold a festival] in Naryx, and the agonothetes shall be Narykans . . . [The Aianteioi] shall not unwillingly give their children as hostages [in war]. As compensation for the girls, the Narykans shall have freedom from [rearing horses] for [war and from emergency contributions]; if any one of them is forced to rear horses or to give his children as hostages, the Locrians [shall give money to the Narykans] for their expenses. [The city] of Naryx shall not send any of the Aianteioi as hostages. The archon shall give justice [to any one of the Aianteioi who brings an accusation] within three days, and shall complete the proceedings for a foreigner within ten days; the archon shall not reject the case, if a suitable witness is provided. [If anyone disputes the decision] in a previous case, it shall be reheard before the same judges; if anyone is convicted of providing [false] evidence, [the decision shall be nullified and the witness] shall be charged with perjury and shall pay double the fine. If the archon does not exact payment of the fine, [the Aianteioi] shall proclaim [that the person who obtained the conviction should exact it] from whoever he can take hold of, from the inhabitants of the city, out of which the charge arose. [Jurors shall be chosen] for the case . . . of thirty drachmas, eleven men. In Naryx out of all the men . . . to give judgement on the pairs of girls, and to render justice to the previous girls as far as possible . . . [the archons] of Naryx shall give justice according to this and shall exact payment.

Oath: on these conditions . . . [in the] agreement and in the oaths. If we keep the oath, may we receive many [blessings, but if we break the oath] . . . Fifty men, chosen by wealth, shall swear [the prescribed oath] . . . the girl who has been sent . . .

Naryx was a city in Opuntian Locris. Strabo reports that it was Little Ajax’s birthplace. In the Iliad, Homer says of Opuntian Locris:

He [Little Ajax] led the men who lived in Opois, Cynus, Calliarus, Bessa and Scarphe, the delightful town of Augeae, Tarphe and Thronion down the Boagrius River. In Oilean Ajax’ charge came forty long black ships, Locrians living across the straits from sacrosanct Euboea (2.621-5).

It is not surprising that a contract with terms over the Locrian maidens deals largely with this area, then. The “Aianteioi were probably a local clan who claimed descent from Aias [Ajax],” according to Attalus.

So the Locrian maidens were a fact.

Locrian Maidens

The Dating of the Locrian Maidens

When did the tradition begin? Demetrius of Scepsis and Strabo reported that “the Locrian maidens were first sent when the Persians were already in power.” Cyrus the Great conquered the Troad in the mid-sixth century BC, so the practice started sometime after then. On the other hand, the Greco-Roman historian Polybius says that the Locrian maidens were sent to Troy much earlier, in the late eighth century BC or the early seventh – about the time Homer himself lived. Michael Wood echoes this view in his In Search of the Trojan War.

However, Troy was only re-founded as a Greek colony at about the same time after its Bronze Age destruction, so the Locrian maidens were unlikely to have come so early. At any rate, after it got its start, the practice continued for centuries.

There was evidently an interruption which Dennis D. Hughes describes in his Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece. On page 174, he points to a passage from Aelian, which speaks of a strange plague visiting the Locrians. It is as follows:

[Meanwhile] the women were giving birth to cripples and monsters. Those who had suffered forgetfulness of the outrages done sent [representatives] to Delphi. Then the oracle did not receive them, because the god was angry with them. When they managed to learn the cause of the anger, the oracle prophesied. And it told them what was required concerning the virgins.

And they, since they could not deny the command, submitted the issue for judgment to Antigonus, concerning which Locrian city should send the payment. And the king decreed that the very thing which was entrusted to him for judgment would be decided by vote.

Famine also hit Locris, according to Timaios. The Locrians were desperate to find a way out of this impasse, so they went to the Oracle of Delphi for answers.

The Oracle of Delphi said that the plague was a curse and that more maidens needed to be sent to Troy. The interruption seems to have occurred during the Phocian War, or the Third Sacred War, between 356 and 346 BC. This was one of Phillip II’s wars.

If Aelian’s account is accurate, the mentioning of the name “Antigonus” likely places this event in the late fourth or the third century BC. So the Locrian maidens continued on, at least 250 or so years after they got their start. Antigonus instituted the contract that you saw above, holding the city of Naryx and the Aianteioi clan responsible for completing the terms (Hughes, 178). From that point on, the term of service appears to have been for one year, rather than the more nebulous lifetime commitment highlighted in some of the above passages.

When did the Locrian maidens cease their sorrow?

As we saw above, Plutarch said that the tradition ended not long before he wrote about it, which was in the first and second centuries AD. This would fit Michael Wood’s research from In Search of the Trojan War, where he gives a first century date. Hughes points to whenever the 1,000 years were reckoned to have passed. As the Trojan War was reputed to be in the 13th or early 12th century BC (a date that matches the archaeology), the Locrian maidens would have stopped going to Troy in the late third or early second century BC.

Conclusion

Regardless of the date or the peculiar circumstances of how the Locrian maidens operated in practice, we know that the tradition happened, and it is a tradition that shows us the power of myths and stories. The Trojan legend was the core of Greek national identity at a time when the country was divided into petty kingdoms and city-states. The story told of the first time that all of Greece united in common cause, a model which proved useful against the Persians much later. In many ways, the Trojan myth was the only institution that tied Greece together. It was so powerful of a story that the people of Locris were willing to sacrifice their young women to atone for their imagined hero, Ajax, who always had a special and honored reserve place in their phalanx.

That the new Trojans would kill these girls if they caught them mattered not. Such was the power of belief that these were sacrifices the Locrians wanted to make.

For many more episodes on the power of belief – and the good and bad consequences that it leads to – read Lives of the Luminaries.

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