Tag Archives: Mythology

Invoking Dionysus: An Excerpt from The Mazes of Magic

This month’s featured title is The Mazes of Magic, Book 1 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series.

The Mazes of Magic cover
The Mazes of Magic is available on Amazon.

The stories are set in the 3rd Century BCE—the Age of the Seven Wonders of the World—in Egypt and the Aegean. In Book 1, Korax, a young man from the island of Rhodes, finds himself a slave in Egypt. His memory is in fragments, but as the story unfolds more memories return.

In this excerpt, told in flashback, he recalls his first unwise experiment with conjuring …

Invoking Dionysus

Korax stood at the window of his bed chamber, staring down at the dark city.

A long line of torches pierced the blackness, winding up the streets in silence. Tonight was the eve of the Dionysia, the Bringing In of the god. By custom, the young men of Rhodos carried the god from his temple in the harbor district up the wide hill to the theater. There Dionysus would be installed in a shrine to watch the plays and performances and preside over the revels.

Korax watched in reverent quiet as the procession passed below his window. Young men in satyr masks carried torches to light the way. Priests clad in red and purple robes walked behind, swinging censers smoking with incense. Three other priests held the tethers of black goats, to be sacrificed at the end of the procession. Next, amid a blaze of torchlight, youths in masks of horse and mule pulled the sacred cart, overflowing with grapevines and blossoms. Within the cart rode the statue of Dionysus, the graceful, long-haired god, dressed in a panther-skin and holding his vine-wrapped wand.

Procession for Dionysus
A Procession for Dionysus, source: https://apolloandartemis.blog/2018/05/16/the-city-dionysia-and-greek-tragedy/

In past years Korax, lover of plays and aspiring poet, had walked in the torchlight procession. But tonight he waited until the last marchers had passed, then quietly closed his shutters. Tonight he had a private appointment with the god.

Korax left a lamp burning on his bedside table. He lay down but did not sleep. All of his plans and preparations were complete. He only had to wait and gather his courage.

In an hour midway between dusk and dawn, when he was certain all others in the house were asleep, Korax crept from his bed. He picked up the lamp and noiselessly opened the door of his chamber.

He stepped down the passageway, past his father’s room. There the hallway opened onto a gallery overlooking the courtyard. The waxing moon of Dionysus rode high in the west, silvery light glinting on roof and vine. But ahead the passage was walled again, and Korax crept with the utmost care past his mother’s door. He turned the corner into the women’s quarters, where the female servants slept and did their weaving and mending. At the end of this hall, he paused before a thick, black door. He pushed it open cautiously, wincing as it creaked on its hinges. He glanced anxiously behind him, then slipped inside.

The chamber was large, with high rafters opening to the eaves of a slanted roof. It was built to be a weaving room, but Korax’s mother had long ago claimed it as her private domain.

When Korax was a young child, his mother had slept in this chamber, and he in a small bed in the corner. His earliest memories were of playing here as a babe, of watching his mother at her loom. Until age six, he had also witnessed the magic rites she performed here, often in the company of handmaids who had accompanied her from Thrace. Korax had gazed with fascination as his mother wielded a crooked wand or a bronze dagger glittering in the firelight. He had listened, entranced, as the women invoked the Great Goddess with sonorous Thracian chants that he only half-understood.

When Korax had reached school age, he had been moved to his present bedroom, at the opposite end of the house. It had felt like an exile, and he had trouble sleeping for many nights.

But within half a year, he had found his way back to the mysterious realm of the witches. The family sometimes slept on the roof in the heat of the summer. Korax discovered a loose slat where the flat roof that covered most of the house bordered on the sloping roof above his mother’s chamber. Thereafter, on nights of new and full moons, he would often sneak from his bed and climb the ladder to the roof. Removing the loose slat, he would watch unobserved from his high vantage point as Anticleia and her maids performed the rites of Hecate.

Korax remembered enough from those spying missions to know how to conjure a spirit or god—or so he believed. But first he needed to borrow a few of his mother’s instruments.

A small altar covered in black cloth stood against the far wall. There he found the serpent-handled knife, laid before the gold statue of Hecate and the smaller, wooden figures that represented Anticleia’s ancestors and household deities. Searching through casks and baskets nearby, Korax took scented candles and a cake of incense.

He left the black door ajar and hurried, quietly as he could, back down the passageway. The blood was thumping in his ears by the time he reached his own door.

His writing table, set before the open window, would serve as the altar. He had already laid it out with ivy, the vine sacred to Dionysus. Now he lit two candles from the flame of his oil lamp and set them on the table’s edge.

From a storeroom downstairs he had taken a brass brazier, the size of a large wine bowl. This he lined with a layer of charcoal, then lit it from one of the candles. Now three fires were burning.

On a chest nearby, a thrush fluttered in its tiny wicker cage, wakened by the shuddering light. Korax had purchased the bird from a stall outside the Temple of Dionysus and smuggled it into the house under his cloak.

Korax paused to calm his mind. What he was about to attempt was dangerous, some might even say blasphemous. He wondered, after all, if he should stop. But then he felt the sore place in his jaw, and remembered the cause of that injury. He thought of all the times he had been hurt and humiliated by Patrollos and others like him.

With a trembling hand, Korax reached for an incense cake. When he dropped it into the brazier, the flames shot up a brilliant orange and spat a gout of perfumed smoke.

“If fiery destruction be the fate of Korax, son of Leontes,” he whispered to himself, “then at least he will singe a few enemies before he burns.”

Not a bad conceit, he thought, as he picked up the dagger.

Outside the window, Rhodos lay quiet in the glimmering moonlight—the city asleep, all unaware of Korax and his magic. He traced in the air symbols of invocation he had watched his mother use. Then he spoke the words he had prepared, pitching his voice at a low murmur so as not to waken the household.

“I call upon you, Dionysus, lord of many voices, patron of players and poets, god of the wild places and the wild heart. I, Korax, son of Anticleia of the Thracian tribes, child of the witches of Hecate, summon you now in all your power and might to come before me. By flame and smoke, I conjure you to appear.”

His hand shook as he put down the dagger. The fire in the brazier sputtered and writhed, seeming to glow brighter, to blaze with the very presence of the god. Korax stared entranced, and for several moments forgot what he intended to do.

Then he remembered the singing contest at the Guild of Aphrodite. Patrollos and his friends would be there to try to win the prize.

And Korax would be waiting for them.

He steadied himself and reached for the birdcage. Opening the top, he grasped the thrush tightly and pulled it out. Gritting his teeth, he held the fluttering, struggling body close to the fire as he picked up the knife.

“I entreat you, Dionysus, to bend your power to my will. Inspire me with your brilliant music and fill my heart with poetry. But discomfit my enemies. Reduce their songs to foolish babble. Stitch their tongues inside their mouths and bind their wits like the hooves of fatted lambs. Rain laughter and derision on their efforts and bring them only shame. Thus I conjure you, Dionysus, god of poets and players, lord of many voices: Do thou as I will!”

Gripped by a fearful ecstasy, Korax lay the bird on the table and cut off its head with a stroke. Blood spurted, and he squeezed the quivering body in his fingers and poured the blood into the fire.

Dionysus Riding a Panther
Dionysus Riding Panther. Source: https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html

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You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes stories here.

Or find The Mazes of Magic on Amazon here.

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

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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.

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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.