The Nursery Tales of the Wife of Leander: The Tale of Rhoda

Red figure stamens (mixing jar) circa 450 BCE. Currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

[Author’s Note: The moral fables which compose The Nursery Tales of the Wife of Leander appear to have been created sometime in the second century BCE in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Textual analysis strongly indicates that they were all composed by a single person, but it is unlikely that the wife of Leander herself wrote them down; it is more likely that she recited them to a scribe. The collection proved popular enough, however, that it is referenced by other authors as late as the fifth century CE. The only complete text, containing all thirteen tales, was found as a palimpsest in an Armenian monastery in 1967. Of the wife of Leander herself, not even her name survives.]

Once, in the days before Medea betrayed her father for love of Jason, there lived a slave named Rhoda. Her master was Craterus, a kind man and a skilled potter whose work was much in demand, and who taught Rhoda in the ways of his craft. As Craterus grew old and his joints thickened and his hands began to shake, Rhoda took on more and more responsibilities at their little shop, throwing the clay and baking the pots and painting them with beautiful pictures. And Craterus saw Rhoda’s skill and hard work, and he promised her that, when it finally came time for him to pay the Ferryman, he would free her and leave her enough coin to set up a shop of her own.

Now it so happened that Craterus had never wed and never had children, and so his only family was his nephew, Elector, the son of his younger sister. Craterus, blind to the man’s cruelty and selfishness, saw only his beloved sister, and so he left a will at the temple of Zeus that Elector was to inherit his shop and all of his coin and wares — but he made Elector promise that he would free Rhoda and give her enough money to set herself up as a potter.

And it came to pass, one day, that Craterus fell ill and took to his bed. As he felt the Psychopomp drawing near, he called Elector and Rhoda to him. He reminded his nephew of his promise, kissed the slave girl farewell, and fell into a deep sleep from which he never woke.

In the days that followed the funeral, Rhoda continued to care for the shop, to throw the clay and bake the pots and paint them with beautiful pictures. When Elector finally came to claim his estate, she reminded him of the promise that he had made to his uncle.

Elector struck Rhoda. He beat her terribly and told her that she would remain his slave for the rest of her life, no matter the promise that he had made to Craterus.

When Elector had gone, Rhoda gathered up one of the small clay cups that she had painted and, stumbling and limping, made her way to the great temple of Zeus. Standing before the statue, with its eyes of crystal and its robe of ivory, Rhoda told Zeus of her deceased master and of his kindness to her over many years and of the promise that he had made to her. And she told Zeus of the cruelty of Elector, and of how he had lied and dishonored his uncle and himself.

Falling to her knees, Rhoda wept into the cup all through the night. At dawn, she climbed to her feet and stumbled through the city, back to the little shop where she had once known such contentment.

Far away, in the exalted halls of Olympus, Zeus heard the words of Rhoda the slave girl. He saw her tears, and he felt terrible anger on her behalf, and the soaring columns of Olympus trembled.

Casting aside the glory of his divinity, Zeus took on the mantle of mortality and descended to the earthly realm. Assuming the visage of a wealthy merchant, dressed in silk and dripping with gold, Zeus came to the house of Elector. Though the Father of Gods and Men was now but a pale shadow of his divine self, nonetheless Elector stood in awe of such a magnificent personage, and quickly invited Zeus into his home.

And so the Lord of Olympus came to sit at the hearth with Elector and his wife and his children, and to share food and drink with them. And Zeus came to see how Elector spoke to them, and to his servants and slaves, and how cruelly he treated them. He knew, now, that Rhoda had been truthful when she prayed and wept in his temple.

As he rose to take his leave, he thanked Elector’s wife for her hospitality and thanked the children for playing a game of marbles with him. But to Elector he issued a warning: treat others justly, and with honor and respect; for to do less is to lessen ourselves, and to risk the righteous wrath of the Gods.

Elector, however, ignored the warning. And, as the days and nights passed, and he continued to hold Rhoda in unjust bondage, he became less and less. The fat shriveled from his belly and thighs, and the muscle wasted away from his bones. His hair fell in clumps from his head and water leaked from his eyes and his nose.

Desperate, Elector consulted a sibyl, seeking the advice of Apollo. The God spoke through his priestess, revealing the will of his mighty father: Elector must fulfill the final wish of his uncle, and free Rhoda, and give her the coins that were promised her.

Elector wailed and shook his fists, and he would have wept had there been any water left in his body. Stumbling and limping, he made his way to the little shop where Rhoda threw the clay and baked the pots and painted them with beautiful pictures. And he told her that she was free, and that the shop and all of its wares and all the coin within were hers. As he spoke, he felt his body begin to heal, his scalp itching as new hair began to grow, his thighs thickening with muscle and fat. As his body healed, he took to his feet and ran for home, and never looked upon Rhoda or spoke to her again.

Rhoda wept with joy. Taking up fine clay, she cast a delicate amphora and painted it with an image of Zeus, magnificent upon his throne, his hand raised in judgement. Presenting the amphora at the temple, she thanked the Lord of Olympus, vowing to always treat others justly, whether priest or merchant or soldier or slave. And she kept that vow to the end of her days.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there. The Tales of the Wife of Leander are her own creation, a series of moral fables which she hopes to one day collect and publish.]