Throughout Medousa, but especially in the first section of the book, our heroine is referred to as both slave and helot. You may ask, “Are they not the same thing?” In fact, they are not.
Ever since the mid 4th Century BCE, Greek writers have made plain the distinction between common chattel slaves, and hereditary serfs belonging to one polis or another. There was also a sort of mid-way type of slave, which I’ll get to shortly.
The tracing of Sparta’s history and the development of its society is difficult, as much of what we think we know comes from Athenian historians who were generally biased. And of genuine Spartan sources, we have none. That said, the people we now think of as Spartan came from the north-west of Greece, speakers of the Doric dialect of ancient Greek, attracted by the good fertile land of the Eurotas Valley in the south central Peloponnese. The Eurotas valley was excellent land for crops of cereals, and olives. As these Dorians settled in (probably about 1000 BCE), they became the dominant power in the southern Peloponnese. The native populations were subjugated in two distinct forms; Helots, and Perioikoi.
The Perioiokoi were peasants, fishermen, artisans, traders, craftsmen, miners, and so on. They continued to live as free men, owning their own land, and their own chattel slaves; but they had no political rights, and were pressed into service in the Spartan military, yet without any input or say in government or public policy.
The Helots were essentially public slaves. They were slaves of the polis, attached to various estates, like serfs in Medieval Europe, or Russia, up through the mid 19th century. Helots, of course, had no real rights whatsoever. They worked as farmers, turning over a portion of their produce to their estates. Being public slaves, and one Spartan could make use of a neighbor’s Helot, as one might borrow a horse or a goat from him, to do whatever work the citizen did not him- or herself wish to do.
In roughly the 8th century BCE, the Spartans invaded the neighboring territory of Messenia, probably for its own rich and fertile valley of Parnisos. When the Messenians were conquered, they were reduced to Helot status. They considerably outnumbered the Lakedaimonian Helots, not to mention the Spartiates (full Spartan citizens) themselves. Some of the Messenian communities on the far outskirts of their territory became Perioikoi to the Spartans; but the entire population still retained their own national identity and aspirations for independence.
As Sparta became more powerful, eventually ascending to the hegemony of what we now know as the Peloponnesian League, the new Messenian Helots were apportioned out to the estates of Spartiates. This made the Spartans a very wealthy ruling class. However, it also caused problems for Sparta’s security and governance. Sparta essentially became the master of a large, disaffected slave-class that vastly outnumbered the citizens, but upon whom the citizens became dependent for labor and produce. The question therefore arose, “How do we keep the Helots under control, and properly servile?” And now, we hearken back to the topic of my previous blog post.
The Spartans kept the Helots in line through systematic abuse, humiliation, and terror. Helots were compelled to dress in distinctive rustic clothing, usually of animal skins. A Helot was normally beaten regularly, whether or not s/he had done anything to deserve it, to reinforce the reality of their status as slaves. Helots were allowed only to perform “low,” or vulgar and songs and silly dances; often, they were brought in to communal public banquets and compelled to do so for the Spartans’ amusement. Very often, a Helot was compelled to drink unmixed wine, made drunken, and then paraded about in public, as an obloquy to the polis. And then, there was the time of the Krypteia.
Every year, in the autumn, the ruling council of Sparta would declare a pro forma war against the Helots, so as to escape the religious culpability for murder (if only on a technicality). During this time, young Spartan men, as a final stage to their Agoge, would, as described previously, be sent out into the night with a knife, their own wits, and orders to kill any Helot they chanced upon. The terror inspired within the Helot population helped to keep them subjugated, afraid and compliant.
Another aspect to the Krypteia was a kind of state-sanctioned eugenics program. Members of what were thought to be a secret police force would regularly go out amongst the Helots, and simply murder those that might be considered too strong, or too handsome, or too spirited, or too skilled, or too adept at combat. This served to keep the Helot population down, to depress their desire for freedom and independence, and it ridded the Helot population of those who could best inspire them to rise up against the Spartans.
When we read the opening passage of Medousa, this is exactly what we witness. A strong father, who is a skilled fighter, and who raised sons who were also learning to give good accounts of themselves in battle; a beautiful mother, who had not only beauty, but the spirit to fall upon the assassins who had been sent to slay her husband and sons, and the skill to deal wounds to her attackers. These exceptional people would have had to be removed from the ranks of the Helot population. Medousa herself was taken away and made a chattel slave in addition to her being a Helot.
One caveat, though– This sort of treatment of Helots was a development of perhaps the 6th or 7th century BCE. The story of Medousa should be some thousand or fifteen hundred years prior to that. Medousa is meant to take place in a time of heroes and legends, at the very beginnings of the establishment of the Hellenic world. Of course, I have included many characters from myth, legend, and history, often separated by centuries, as well as levels of veracity. At the time in which Medousa is set, such institutions of communal slavery, and strategies for dealing with slave populations, had not yet evolved.
But then, this is a Fantasy novel, drawing on the old myths. Not a history of what was.