Tag Archives: Greek Gods

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.

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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.

Jack’s Crazy Writing Life, and the Goddess Hekate

While waiting for beta reader feedback on The Mazes of Magic (the first book in the brand new Conjurer of Rhodes series), I have been making a start on the next Abby Renshaw adventure. My initial plan was to write another novella, perhaps a bit longer than Ghosts of Tamgrove Hallbut still something that could be written quickly.

BUT … sometimes a writer’s plans go astray. Stories take on a life of their own. They grow into unruly children, though we love them for it all the more. The next Abby story (working title, The Secret of Lock Tower) wants to be longer, perhaps a full-length novel. It is growing in several directions at once.

One of those directions, I discovered last night, circles back to the Goddess Hekate.

As I wrote in a blog post in 2016, Hekate was the name given by Neoplatonist occult philosophers of antiquity to a female deity that they conceived of as seated at the portal between the “uncreated fire” and the manifest Universe. This figure was the inspiration for the “Goddess Who Shapes All Things” in Ghosts of Bliss Bayou.

Hecate Image
Goddess Image, possibly Hecate, from antique tile.

But Hekate, of course, appears much earlier in Greek mythology, and is also a Goddess figure honored today by neopagans worldwide. Those interested in learning about the many facets of this fascinating deity would enjoy the book Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate published in 2009 by Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

I was honored to be included in that anthology under a pen name, Corbin. Here is the poem I contributed, which I will let speak for itself:

Hecate

She stands at the crossroads under the cowl
Of the sky with goblets in all her claws.
Wind flutters her cloak, obscuring the moon,
Revealing the Book of the Laws.

Ruby wine beckons but I dare not drink
In the night with her eyes like coins of gold
Watching and her silence as ominous
And deep as the sea is old.

O seedless vision, Daughter of the Gates
Of Time, is your offer enlightenment,
Your gift illumination or demise?
Which brings the best contentment?

Kind Dark Mother, I will decline all cups,
Slip away, head bowed as in reflection.
Let me walk a bit longer in the air,
Goddess, but which direction?

Copyright 2009 by Jack Massa. All rights reserved.

Sonnet for Aphrodite

In celebration of Valentine’s Day…

Aphrodite
Conceived in wind and foam and born in Spring,
O lovely, tempting Goddess of the wave,
What cunning pleasures, what sweet pains you bring,
How perfectly you crush the dreams you gave.
Since long ago you touched the shore in Cyprus,
Trailing salt and flame from the hissing sea,
Mortals have chased you, desperate for bliss,
Enslaved each other while longing to be free.
Leaving all, like broken shells in sand,
You pass mildly on, blithely out of reach;
Not passion but compassion you demand,
Our hearts divine and perfect Love to teach–
That Love that changes death to life again,
Makes atoms dance and galaxies to spin.

Detail from The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

 

 

Prometheus, the Pain of Forethought, and the Peace of Wild Things

This poem by Wendell Berry showed up as a meme online and got me thinking…

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come in to the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Beautiful poem, but the line that struck me was about how wild things do not “tax their lives with forethought.” Only humans do that.

Then I remembered the myth of Prometheus, and that his name means “forethought.”  In the myth, of course, the Titan Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to humans. As punishment, Prometheus is chained forever to a rock and each day an eagle comes and eats out his liver.

Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre) - Source, Wikipedia
Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre) – Source, Wikipedia

But the fact that his name means Forethought made me wonder. What if the “fire” that Prometheus really stole from the gods and gave to us is exactly what his name says? Forethought—the capacity to think ahead and imagine what may be next. That’s what sets us apart from the wild creatures and makes us like the gods. And it’s what causes us to wake up in fear of ‘what our lives and our children’s lives may be.’ Or, you might say, causes that eagle to keep coming back and eating out our livers (or our hearts).

These days many of us are living in fear of the future: political insanity, climate change, disasters around every corner. Many are eating their hearts out.

That’s forethought, I’m afraid. Part of what makes us human.

Blame Prometheus.

And maybe, like Berry’s narrator, seek out the presence of the still waters. And remember that, though you can’t see them at the moment, the stars are waiting with their light.

 

The Goddess Who Shapes All Things

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Abigail Renshaw is a young woman studying magic—a kind of magic formulated by her ancestor and his contemporaries, who founded the town of Harmony Springs in Florida.

Midway through the story, Abby’s grandmother gives her a ring that has been passed down through the family.

She places the ring in my hand, and I feel its energy, like a tiny electric current. The gold is formed into leaves and vines framing a cameo: the white-on-black image of a woman with wild hair, holding a torch.

I’m stunned. “Who is she?”

“Part of the magical lore of the Circle. She’s the Great Goddess Who Shapes All Things.”

Hekate Image
Goddess Image, possibly Hekate, from antique tile.

The idea for the fictional Circle of Harmony came from the so-called “occult revival” of the late 19th Century, a period when spiritualism and magic became fashionable in Europe and America. During this time, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn flourished. The Golden Dawn espoused a system of magic that drew on many occult sources, including Kabbalah, Tarot, and Rosicrucianism.

Another source of the Golden Dawn system was Neoplatonism, a philosophical tradition of late antiquity. A key document of Neoplatonism is the Chaldean Oracles which survive today only in fragments.

The cosmology of Neoplatonism envisions a divine creative fire, which is the source of the manifest universe. Seated at the portal between this uncreated fire and the world we know is a Goddess Figure. In the Chaldean Oracles, she is named Hekate, after the goddess of the ancient Greeks. A good scholarly summary of this topic can be found in this paper by John D. Turner of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

This idea of a Great Goddess who sits at the threshold between the creative source and the manifest world, is also pictured in the Tarot.

Tarot High Priestess
from the Waite-Rider tarot deck created by Pamela Colman Smith.

Early in Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Abby comes across this card in a reading.

But my eyes are drawn to the crown position—the High Priestess. I’ve read that she’s actually a goddess, seated on her throne at the place of balance between the positive and negative polarities of the Universe. I stare at her serene face and her robes. In the picture, the robes turn into a waterfall and then a blue stream that flows away. It flows down through all the other cards that have pictures of water—the Stream of Life that gives birth to everything.

Late in the novel, when Abby is in deep trouble, she encounters the Goddess again, in a vision. Like all magical guides, the Goddess does not solve her problem, but gives her knowledge that might help her solve it herself…

She stares at me, calm and gentle. “What would you ask of me?”

I didn’t expect that. “Umm. There is an evil spirit who wants to kill me—and other people who are dear to me. I must learn how to banish him or…defend us from him.”

She considers before answering. “Behind me are the hidden sources of creation. The river of the Universe flows at my feet. I sit at the gateway between two pillars—light and darkness, love and strife. The contention of these forces causes all things to be. To wield the highest magic, you must station yourself at this gateway, the point of perfect balance. Then your will can shape what flows into manifestation. So all things are possible.”

Hecate as triple goddess. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=604834
Hekate as triple goddess. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=604834

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.

Honoring the Patron of Writers

As I start this author’s blog, I am reminded that it is always wise to propitiate the gods and give thanks to the divine spirits.

Here is a little poem I wrote a few years back in honor of the god of communication and commerce.

Thanking Hermes

I’d like to thank him for the thought
Except he’s gone and never caught.
The curve of sky, the open road
The long haul trucker with his load
The camera phone, the meme, the vid
The stock exchange, electric grid
Liquid crystal, Web Two O
Slick as rain, bright as snow.
No scripture ever so profound
Winged feet never touch the ground
Quick as hawk, keen as spice
He guides the tumble of the dice
Place your bets, he is your friend
Who’ll stop for you at the end.

– Rev Aug 14, 2010

hermesmosaic