Category Archives: Conjurer of Rhodes

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 2

In last month’s post, we introduced Berenicea, one of the main female characters in The Treasure of the Sun God. She is a prosperous hetaera (courtesan) and also a Priestess of Aphrodite.

As mentioned last time, because of the historical circumstances of the ancient world, I found it challenging to create women characters who are both realistic for their time and relatable for a contemporary audience.

The challenge was brought home to me in the reactions of some of my beta readers to Berenicea. One woman had a hard time understanding the character, and in particular thought the scene between her and Thalia (see last month’s post) added nothing of value to the story. Another reader, a man, found Berenicia “too good to be true” and said that she read too much like “a male fantasy.”

“Aphrodite of Rhodes”. Statue of the Goddess rising from her bath, copy of a work from the Hellenistic period. source https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/S10.16.html

 

Responding to Beta Readers

Of course, every reader is different, and it can be hard for a writer to know when to make changes based on beta feedback. But when more than one reader finds a similar problem with a character or plot point, it tells me I’d better examine the issue.

In this case, at least two readers were not finding my priestess understandable or sympathetic. When this happens, I think the writer needs to take a close look at the character and “imagine harder.”

Re-imagining the Priestess

Who was Berenicia in my mind?

Her type of character was based on historical sources: an accomplished hetaera, a mistress and companion to leading male citizens. But she is also more than that. As a teenager, she heard Korax sing of how he saw the Goddess of Love within her. That moment changed her life, and set her on the path to become a priestess. In her mind, being a priestess means embodying her ideal vision of the goddess she serves.

A theme of the whole Conjurer of Rhodes series is that the immortals can only act in our world through human vessels. Berenicea conceives of herself as a vessel for the Goddess of Love. She strives each day to embody that ideal and express love for everyone.

Aphrodite and Adonis. Attic red-figure squat lekythos, ca. 410 BC. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=530718

 

Rewriting the Scene

With these thoughts in mind, I rewrote the scene where Berenicia speaks with Thalia. Here is the revised scene, with the changes in bold. (You can compare this to the original scene in the previous post.)

Standing on the harbor quay, Berenicia pours a libation and speaks a prayer to Aphrodite. She asks that the goddess bless the men of the Rhodian navy who have just sailed off to war, and asks particular protection for two men she loves, Korax and Patrollos. She is overheard by Thalia, a young noblewoman who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I knew that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia said.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The servant scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, of course. But so are many other women. I feel there must be more to it.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos responds to the goddess, because she loves him so much, loves his weakness as well as his strength. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.” She ended with a fond smile.

But Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea sighed. “They do not love me, but the goddess within me. I am simply her vessel. She is what most men seek in women. Because, whatever love men bring, she blesses it and makes them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough.”

“But, then … is there nothing for you?”

“Oh, yes.” Berenicea said. “There is service and sacrifice, but also much joy. Because I feel Aphrodite’s love inside me every day. And she loves the whole world.”

Thalia blinked and shook her head. “I am no priestess, and I could never be so selfless. I fear no one will ever love me the way Korax loves you.”

Berenicea stared at her, as if listening to a whisper. “I suggest you pray to the goddess. Ask her to fill your heart. I feel that … First she must teach you to love yourself. After that, well, you may be surprised.” Smiling kindly, she caressed the girl’s hair with both hands, then bent and kissed her forehead. “I give you her blessing, dear child.”

The priestess straightened, to find Thalia’s eyes shining with fresh tears.

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa


Results

I sent the revised scene to the two beta readers mentioned above. Both of them felt it was an improvement, and that it gave them a clearer picture of Berenicia.

What do you think, gentle reader? In the context of an historical novel, can you relate to a priestess who strives to live the ideal of loving the whole world?

Aprhodite with Swan, from Rhodes. Source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Aphrodite_swan_BM_D2.jpg

**************************************************

Learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes books

Find The Treasure of the Sun God on Amazon.

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 1

In the Conjurer of Rhodes books, I tried to create characters who are not only well-rounded and interesting to a modern reader, but realistic for the times in which they lived. This is a challenge for every historical novelist.

Women in Antiquity

When writing about the ancient world, it’s especially challenging with women characters. Greece in particular, was notoriously patriarchal. Wives were essentially treated as chattel, and women for the most part were either wives, slaves, or prostitutes. (See Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves – Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B. Pomeroy.)

Yet free women did have certain legal rights, and wives had considerable power within the home. Prostitutes (hetaera) might be educated and independent, and could rise to social prominence. It was not uncommon for hetaerae who began their lives as slaves to earn their freedom and become quite wealthy.

Hetaera at a Symposium, source https://www.ancient.eu/article/927/women-in-ancient-greece/


From Slave Girl to Priestess

Berenicia, one of the main women characters, fits into that category. When we first meet her (in flashbacks in Book 1) she is a flute girl, of Celtic heritage, red-haired and lovely. A slave in the house of a well-known courtesan, she has just come of age and become a prostitute.

When our hero Korax sings a hymn to Aphrodite and makes it plain that Berenicea has inspired him, the girl feels the stirring of the goddess within her. She begins to believe she can become more than simply a slave girl, and thereafter asks her mistress to train her as a priestess.

The degree to which sacred prostitution existed in Greece is controversial, although it seems to have been well-established in other ancient cultures. (See “Sex in the Service of Aphrodite, Did Prostitution Really Exist in the Temples of Antiquity?” and also “Ancient Greek Temples of Sex.”)

We also don’t know a lot about the priestesses of Aphrodite and their position in society. However, given the evidence we do have for Greece (especially Corinth) and the fact that during the Hellenistic period— when the Conjurer of Rhodes books are set— there was considerable influence from Eastern cultures, it seems plausible that a young courtesan in Rhodes might also become a priestess of the Goddess of Love.

A few of the books used to research the Conjurer of Rhodes series.

 

Courtesan Meets Future Wife

What would such a woman be like?

When we meet Berenicia again, in The Treasure of the Sun God, she is in her early twenties. Both a priestess and hetaera, she is beautiful, educated, and a patroness of the arts. She owns her own house and entertains a select group of clients. She is the lover of both Korax, who has returned to Rhodes, and his rival, Patrollos.

In a key scene, Korax and Patrollos have just sailed off to war. A crowd has gathered to watch the departure of the fleet. As the citizens disperse, Berenicia stands on the dock, pours a libation, and speaks aloud a prayer to Aphrodite, asking that the goddess may protect both of the men she loves. She is overheard by Thalia, who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

Here is the beta version of that scene.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I know that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia replied.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The woman scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked kindly.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, it is true, but is that the only reason.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos adores Aphrodite through me, because she accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.”

Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea put a hand on her shoulder. “My dear, men adore me because I give them my adoration. Whatever love they bring, I bless it and make them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough. That is the secret of Aphrodite; she welcomes all offerings with an open heart.”

Thalia’s face was solemn. “I understand your words. But is it really that simple?”

Berenicea lowered her eyes, amused. “Simple to say, less simple to do. But if every wife practiced this secret, even a little, there would be less work in the world for hetaeras.” She caressed the young woman’s hair. “May the Goddess bless you always, my lady.”

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa

 

Readers’ Reactions

When I sent the novel to beta readers, their reaction to Berenicea, and to this scene in particular, convinced me I had a problem. What the readers had to say, and what I did about it, will be the subject of the next blog post.

************************

Check out the Conjurer of Rhodes series here.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

When I first started writing the  Conjurer of Rhodes series , I renewed my acquaintance with the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Early in the Conjurer books the protagonist Korax recklessly summons the god Dionysus to help him win a singing contest. This leads Korax to a world of trouble, and led me to research the god of wine and frenzy.

Dionysus 2. 0135: Roman copy of Greek original from 4C BC. Glyptothek, München. Source: : http://www.maicar.com/GML/Dionysus2.html
Origin Myth

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal princess, Semele. According to one version of the myth, the Goddess Hera, disguised as an old woman, paid a visit to Semele and convinced her to demand that her lover show himself in his true aspect. When Zeus swore an oath to give Semele anything she wished for, he was forced to comply. Unfortunately, mortals cannot gaze on the full glory of the gods, and poor Semele was incinerated.

Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed the child into his thigh. Dionysus was born a few months later and is thus called “twice-born.” Oh, and no need to mourn for Semele. When Dionysus grew up, he took a journey to the Underworld, rescued the shade of his mother, and brought her to Olympus.

The Festival of Dionysis

The fact that Dionysus was incubated close to the generative organs of the King of the Gods doubtless reflects his later association with fertility and the generation of life. The Athenians celebrated his festival in the Spring, to mark the end of winter and the harvesting of new crops. This Great Dionysia was a time of singing, dancing, and theater, and Dionysus was considered the god of plays and players.

The Frenzy of the Bacchae

The most famous appearance of Dionysus in Greek literature is, of course, in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

In mythology the Bacchae, or maenads, were female worshippers of Dinoysus who followed the god through the hills, intoxicated and ecstatic.

But it wasn’t only the wine. According to scholar Walter Burkert (Greek Religion, English Translation 1985 by Harvard University Press, page 161):

“Intoxication as a change in consciousness is interpreted as the irruption of something divine … Everyone who surrenders to this god must risk abandoning his everyday identity and becoming mad; this is both divine and wholesome.”

The Fate of Pentheus

In Euripides’ play, the rulers of Thebes are not so welcoming to this divine madness. Pentheus the king outlaws the worship of Dionysius and actually imprisons the god, whom he takes for a mortal acolyte.

Angered, Dionysus inspires Pentheus’ mother and aunts to rush off to the mountains and join the Bacchic rites. He then lures Pentheus out to spy on the women. The maenads discover the king and tear him limb from limb. (A clear lesson, I must say, to those who would scorn either the gods or the power of women.)

Pentheus torn apart by Ino and Agave, lekanis lid, ca. 450-450 BC, Louvre. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentheus
A Hymn to Dionysus

The following poem recounts the story of Dionysus and sees a glimmer of relevance to our own times.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

Appearing in the city street,
Ivy-crowned and panther-coated,
Speaking many tongues together,
Teacher of intoxication,
Herald of his own religion:
Honor and revere the god,
You poets of the sacred songs.

Born of mortal, Theban princess.
To gaze on god she insisted.
Zeus revealed himself in lightning,
Burned her flesh and bones to ashes.
Green vines sprang to shield the unborn
Child, sewn into the thigh of Zeus,
Carried to the sacred mountain,
Nursed by nymphs, nourished on honey–
Immortal child born of death.

Come of age, the god departed,
Journeyed through the lands of Asia,
Taught the Mysteries to mortals,
Conquered countries with his revels,
Spread the culture of the vine–
Sweet the pleasure of the dancing,
Whirling to the many voices,
Ecstasy of knowing god.

Only Thebes refused him worship:
Rulers adamant with power,
Arrogant and frozen-hearted.
So he lashed the town with madness,
Roused the women to rebellion,
Cast them roaming on the mountain,
Freed their willful hearts with shouting,
Till they tore their lords to pieces,
Prideful men disdaining god.

Now our nation too is frozen:
Princes gluttonous with power,
People circling dumb with fear.
Dionysus, Lord of Voices,
Will your call awake our cities?
Singer of the wild places:
Blessed are those who know your secrets;
Bereft are they who scorn the gods.

Satyr and Dionysus, Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C., Antikensammlung Berlin source https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html

 

You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes Books here or find Book 1 on Amazon.

The Day of Thoth

While researching the Conjurer of Rhodes books, I read a lot to refresh and deepen my knowledge of the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt.

One of my favorite deities has always been the Egyptian Thoth, equated by the Greeks with Hermes. Thoth is the god of writing and magic, indeed of all the mental arts.

Thoth’s Egyptian name was Djehuty (or dhwty) meaning “He Who is Like the Ibis”  (1)  He is usually depicted in the form of a man with an Ibis head.

Source: https://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/thot/esp_thot_9.htm

According to some sources ( 2 and 3) August 29 is the first day of the month of Thoth. This time was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile, on which the Egyptians depended to make the land fertile.

Someone once pointed out to me that on our modern calendar August 29 is directly opposite in the wheel of the year to February 29, a day which only occurs every four years. This is an odd coincidence given another myth about Thoth. In this story, he established the 365-day solar calendar.

According to the myth, the year was originally only 360 days long, and Nut (the goddess of the sky) was sterile and unable to bear children. Thoth gambled with the Moon for 1/72nd of its light and won five days to add to the year (360/72 = 5).  During these five days, Nut gave birth to the next generation of gods.

Depiction of the Goddess Nut holding up the sky. Source : http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/ancient-egyptian-mythology/egyptian-creation-myth

Egyptian mythology has several creation myths. This seems to relate to the fact that the priesthoods in different major cities proclaimed their god as the creator. In Hermopolis, Thoth was the chief deity and the story was that he created the world by uttering a single word. Some sources say this was a primal vibration, others that it was a song.  Still others claim it was the name of the primordial water goddess, Nun.

In other stories, Thoth is credited with helping steer the boat of Ra, the sun god, with helping Isis in her quest to resurrect her husband Osiris, and with assisting Horus in his battle with the evil god Set.

Thoth is also featured in the scroll known as The Papyrus of Ani, (aka, The Egyptian Book of the Dead). In the scene where the soul of the deceased is weighed by Anubis, Thoth writes down the result.

Source: http://slideplayer.com/slide/4362462/

Taking all of this into account, I wrote a little ditty in appreciation of Thoth. A hip hop meter seemed appropriate.

Hip Hop Thoth

At Hermopolis town, on the Nile
They’d say Thoth made the world (with a smile)
Spoke one word with his Ibis tongue
And the world spilled out all fresh and young.

Many tough ages have come and gone,
But Thoth still sings his ibis song.
Hanging in the swamp, dressed like a bird:
At night he whispers the magic word.

Older than the Moon and older than the Sun,
He’s the bird with the word and the word is “Nun.”

When Ra sails the sky, Thoth steers his boat;
When Horus fights Set, Thoth holds his coat;
When you die Anubis may weigh your soul,
But it’s Thoth who writes it all down on his scroll.

Now Thoth played dice with the Moon and he won,
And Thoth taught Isis how to con the Sun,
And when this world at last spills to its end,
Thoth might just say “Nun” again.

Older than the Moon and older than the Sun,
He’s the bird with the word and the word is “Nun.”

You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes series here. Or check out the first book on Amazon.

Choosing Your Beliefs

In a series of novels I wrote a few years ago (publication forthcoming) there is a scene that touches on choosing your beliefs.

The story takes place in the ancient Greek world, and was inspired in part by my love of Greek mythology.  The hero is a citizen of the island of Rhodes, home of the famous Colossus, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

wondersworld-from-viewmaster

Artist’s Rendering of the Colossus.
Source: View Master World

In this scene, a town on Rhodes has been sacked by pirates. The hero, Korax, has volunteered to join a naval mission to put down the pirates and try to rescue the townspeople.  The prospects for the mission are dicey, to the say the least. Korax is talking to Nicoles, the admiral who leads the fleet.  To Nicoles, the gods are a living presence in his world.

Nicocles contemplated the quiet sea.  “My friend, I have a wife and two daughters.  Each time I go to sea, they fear for my safety.  I always tell them they need not worry, that even if I am lost, Rhodes will protect them.  And the Rhodians will always be able to protect them, because our island has the special aegis of Divine Helios.  I tell them this because I believe it.  I believe it because believing anything else leads me to despair. “

If the politics of 2016 have shown me anything, it is that we all choose what we want to believe.

I know a psychotherapist who uses this quote from William James in her email signature: “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

I choose to believe that our lives have a higher purpose we cannot fully grasp and that, despite all of the evil in the world, our species is evolving and becoming better.

I choose to believe this because believing anything else leads me to despair.