Tag Archives: Mythology

Praise to the Goddess Athene

Okay, recent events have gotten me—and lots of other people—thinking about women. Their place and condition in society, their empowerment or disempowerment.

Being who I am, these pondering led me to think of the Goddess Athene. Because, in the myths that lie at the roots of Western culture, she is the primary figure of a powerful, independent female, complete within herself.

Bust of Athene (picture credit unknown)
Many Aspects

According to the myths, Athene (or Athena) was not born in the normal sense, but sprang fully grown and armored from the forehead of Zeus. She comes into the world strong and compete in herself from the start.

Athene is a multifaceted goddess. As the armor indicates, she is a fighter. But she is also the patroness of artisans and philosophers.

According to the main article on Wikipedia, she was originally the Aegean goddess of the palace and presided over household crafts and protected the king. Hence the appellation “Pallas Athene.” The article goes on to quote Cratylus, a dialogue by Plato, which traces the roots of Athene’s name to the words for mind, intelligence, and divine intelligence.

In Homer’s Iliad, she is of course a fierce goddess of war and allied to the Greeks. In The Odyssey, she serves as guide (tutelary deity) to the hero, Odysseus.

Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the island of Ithaca, by Giuseppe Bottani. Source: WikiCommons

Athene was also the patron deity of Athens. A well-known myth relates how she competed with the sea-god Poseidon for that honor. While Poseidon gifted the Athenians with the first horse, Athene won the contest by presenting them with the first domesticated olive tree. (To the ancients, this gift represented not only olives, but oil and hence light for their lamps.)

Things you might not know

A few lesser-known facts about Athene:

  1. You can visit her temple right here in the USA! Nashville, Tennessee has an exact replica of the Parthenon, including a copy of her statue from ancient times
The Parthenon in Nashville, TN
The Parthenon in Nashville. Source https://www.trolleytours.com/nashville/parthenon
Athena Statue in the Parthenon
statue By Photograph by Dean Dixon, Sculpture by Alan LeQuire – Dean Dixon, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15363521

2. The asteroid (or minor planet) Pallas is named for her. First discovered in 1779, Pallas is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. It is also notable because of its highly eccentric orbit, inclined nearly 35% from the plane of the asteroid belt. (Athene goes her own way, folks.)

3. As Goddess of Wisdom, she is associated with both owls and snakes.

Stela of Athene feeding a snake
Stela of Athene feeding a snake. Currently hanging on my backyard gate. Photo by Jack Massa

4. As noted in Wikipedia,  in contemporary Wicca, Athena is venerated as one aspect of the Great Goddess. Some Wiccans believe that she may bestow the “Owl Gift” (the ability to write and communicate clearly) upon her worshippers.

(Always, I pursue the Owl Gift.)

In Conjurer of Rhodes

I was inspired to write about Athene in the Conjurer of Rhodes series, In both The Lights of Alexandria and The Treasure of the Sun God, she appears as a guide to the protagonist, Korax, inspiring him to heroism and service.

At one point, she counsels him to leave Egypt and return to his home island…

“Go home to Rhodos. Your father still lives, and he needs you. More, your city needs you. When you were struck down, and Anticleia sacrificed her life, it began a chain of events that has brought misfortune to Rhodes. In the old times, priests would have recognized the omens. They would have known that the city was polluted by an undiscovered crime. They would have said the Furies were wreaking vengeance, until atonement was made.” The goddess leaned her head with irony. “Unfortunately, these days there are few with the vision to read the signs, and most people wouldn’t believe them anyway. But I am the protector of free cities. And free cities will not perish so long as they have citizens of wisdom and valor.”

To which I can only say, “So may it be!”

Poem

Here is a praise poem I wrote for Athene some time back…

Athene
Let us now praise glorious Athene
Paradoxical granddaughter of Time
Placid in counsel, fearsome in war
Teacher of reason, patroness of rhyme.

Virgin complete in her Goddess body
She loves philosophers and heroes best
Showed Socrates how to delve for causes
Guided Odysseus home to his rest.

Her house is the paragon of temples
Her gifts are the oil, the lamp and the light
She is the just protector of cities,
The brightness of air, the owl in the night.

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

A Bridge From Balor, Chapter One

In this post we present the opening chapter of A Bridge from Balor, a historical fantasy set in Medieval Ireland.

A Bridge From Balor Cover
Cover photograph courtesy of SandiePhotos www.sandiephotos.com.

Ireland, 1305. Six are called: warrior, druid, healer, scholar, harper, witch. Summoned in a dream on the Eve of May, they are charged by the Earth itself to thwart an invasion from another realm.

Chapter 1 – A May Day Dream

On the Eve of Beltaine, the First of May, the young Lord Farrel dreamed a vivid and peculiar dream.

Transported to a grassy hilltop near the boundary of his lands, he found himself wandering among massive, tumbled stones—the ruins of an ancient ring fort. An old, slender moon glided low in the east. Rolls of mist, glistening in the moonlight, floated about the hill and over the plains below. The countryside, green and lush with Spring, shimmered with a ghostly, emerald glow.

Farrel shuddered at a disturbing sense of the uncanny: he knew he was dreaming, yet the dream felt undeniably real. Ring forts and other such ruins were known to be the haunts of faeries. Sensible folk shunned such places—especially at night.

A murmur of voices reached Farrel from higher up the hill. Just then a bank of mist parted and he saw a man and woman standing together before a crumbled gray wall. The man, dressed in long robes of gold and white, pointed a crooked wand at Farrel.

“Come forward and join us,” he called.

Instinctively, the young chieftain glanced down to see if he was armed. But the broad, studded belt over his linen tunic held neither sword nor dagger. Farrel set his jaw and put a slight swagger in his gait as he marched toward the two strangers.

The man looked mortal enough, and seemed about Farrel’s age of twenty. He was tall, perhaps half a head above Farrel’s considerable height, and well-made, though he lacked the Lord of Tronwall’s deepness of chest and wide, brawny shoulders. The stranger’s beard, the same tawny color as his unshorn hair, curled long and full but retained the softness of youth. It looked like yellow down compared to Farrel’s scruffy black beard.

The girl seemed even younger than the man. Trim and fair, she wore the simple skirt, blouse, and bodice of a country maid. A bright plaid kerchief bound her auburn hair.

“Who are you?” Farrel demanded of them both. “How have I come here? Stolen from my bed by faeries, was I?”

“Not quite.” The man gave a wry smile. He gazed at Farrel’s forehead as though reading an invisible scroll there. “You, so I behold, are the young Lord Farrel, Chieftain of Tronwall on the northern coast.”

Farrel gestured broadly to the countryside at his back. “That is part of my lands, as are these hills. Making you my guests, or foes. Which is it?”

“I am no enemy, I assure you,” the young woman answered. “I only arrived a moment ago, and was about to ask this man if he knew how I came to be here.”

“We are all of us here in a dream,” the other said, “a dream we share together, if you can conceive of such a thing. What I know of it, I know in the manner of dreamers. For instance, this lovely green-eyed girl is Glenna, a maid of Tirawley and apprentice to the healing woman of Nephinwood. As for me, I speak my true name only to trusted friends. Yet such, I feel certain, you both must be—or become. I am Valin, initiate of the Oak Priests.”

“A druid then.” Farrel’s voice took on a calmer tone.

From earliest times the druids had been the magicians, priests, and law-givers of his race. Even in this Christian age, the Old Ways had a following, especially in the wild places of forest and upland. A druid was a man of mystery and power, respected by all save the most arrogant churchmen and lords.

“Why have we been brought here, druid?” Farrel asked.

“No doubt we will learn that in time,” Valin said. “But I sense our circle is not yet complete. Look, another joins us.”

With his short wooden wand he gestured down the hill, to where a maiden was stepping among the fallen stones. She wore a gown of white linen, loose and frayed. A girdle of new flowers circled her waist, and a similar wreath of blooms crowned her abundant, gold-red hair. Gazing up at the three dreamers, she gave a wild, gleeful smile. She came toward them barefoot, treading lightly.

“I have dreamed this dream before,” she said. “But always before I dreamed alone. This time we dream together, do we not? For I feel each of you is truly here with me: Valin, Glenna, Farrel, most brave and true.”

Speaking their names, she touched each on the arm, touching Farrel last and allowing her fingers to trace over his hand. She stared at him with mad, enchanting eyes.

Farrel stared back, utterly captivated. A moment passed before he collected himself and gruffly cleared his throat.

“Young woman, you seem to know more of this than we do. Perhaps you can tell us the reason we are here.”

The girl shrugged, looking about. “My dream never went past our meeting. But is not our meeting enough on such a glorious night?”

“You are Kerrawyn,” Valin intoned, “daughter of a mortal lass and some elf-man she met on Midsummer’s Eve …”

“And never thought to ask his name,” Kerrawyn said, “so beguiled was she by his wild faery charms. Yes, I am Kerrawyn the wood-witch, friend to birds and water-sprites, lover of bright flowers. Is not Spring the sweetest time of year?”

“This Spring is tainted by a threat,” Valin murmured, looking aloft. “Though as yet I cannot discern its shape. Wait, two more arrive—to complete our assembly, I think.”

They followed his gaze to where a young man and woman emerged from the mist, climbing the slope toward them. The man, clean-shaven except for a thin mustache, was of middle stature, slim and angular. The girl was only a bit smaller and very pretty, with black hair cut short above her shoulders. Both wore traveling garb, colorful woolen cloaks and soft leathers.

As he approached, the young man scrutinized each of the dreamers, his dark eyes keen beneath a red cockade hat.

“An unlikely conclave, this. And why my sister and I find ourselves here I confess I cannot fathom. You look as if you may have authority here.”

He had addressed the last remark to Valin, staring at the druid with a mixture of irony, confusion, and belligerence.

“I am merely a dreamer like you,” Valin replied. “I perceive that you are Sontoral and Aidan, children of the Lord and Lady of Caer Wold in Wales, now deceased.”

“Aye, our parents are dead seven years,” Sontoral answered. “Murdered by the local Norman tyrant in order to steal our lands. But how do you know who we are?”

“He sees with the druid’s sight,” Farrel answered.

Valin continued, addressing Sontoral: “Further, I learn you are a harper of the ancient school. And though only a journeyman, already your name carries some fame, owing to certain satires against the English and their king. While your sister, despite her youth, is an accomplished scribe and scholar, a preserver of traditional verse and lore.”

“So you know us,” Aidan said, “while we know nothing of you save that you speak the Irish tongue.”

“That is meet, for we stand on Erinn’s soil,” Valin replied, “though your bodies lie asleep across the sea. I am Valin. Here is Glenna, Farrel, Kerrawyn …”

The druid paused, brow wrinkled, as though he listened to some internal voice. “I sense that we six are sharing this dream at the behest of some unknown power … Three women and three men, all born within the same three-year. Druid, warrior, harper, healer, scholar, witch: each of us is needed.”

“Needed for what?” Farrel demanded. “You bewilder us with a tangle of details while claiming ignorance of this central question: Why are we brought here?”

Valin chuckled and scratched his bearded chin with the tip of his wand. “That is the central question,” he agreed. “Let us sit and listen for the answer.”

He sat down on the ground with legs folded. Kerrawyn nodded and followed his example.

“And to what are you listening?” Sontoral asked.

“Inner voices speak with wisdom to the spirit,” Valin replied, “provided one has the wisdom to listen.”

Glenna glanced around at the others, shrugged and sat down beside the druid. Farrel waited a moment more, then flopped himself down as well.

“A stranger dream than this was never dreamed,” he grumbled.

“Shhh,” Valin held up a hand, eyes shut, a look of keen attention on his face.

Only Aidan and Sontoral remained standing, wearing grim and baffled expressions.

Presently, Valin rose to his feet. “The dream will provide our answer,” he said. “Look there!”

He pointed his wand into the mist, which immediately retreated, rolling back from the hilltop. In moments the whole countryside in that direction lay uncovered, flat marshland stretched beneath the moon and stars.

From the center of the marsh, faintly visible against the sky, rose an arc of blue light, sweeping up in a tremendous curve until lost in the outer firmament.

The sight filled the dreamers with a feeling of awe and foreboding. For several moments, none of them spoke.

“What is it?” Glenna asked finally. “A bridge,” Valin whispered, “a bridge from another world.”

The arc of light grew brighter, till it flashed with dazzling brilliance. Then the vision shifted and the dreamers stood upon the marsh, the bridge of light before them like a huge, gleaming tower.

Gradually, the marshland surrounding the bridge began to change. Reeds and rushes withered and died. The marshwater drifted with oily smears, dead fish and frogs floating on the surface. Trees on the surrounding hillsides rotted and fell. The soil turned ashen, and the very air shimmered with dank, fetid gasses.

Nature spirits, visible to the dreamers’ eyes, rose twisting from their dwelling places in root, stream, and rock, driven out by this foreign power unleashed upon the Earth.

Kerrawyn seemed to share the spirits’ agony. She cried out as if in pain, covered her face and wept. Farrel hesitated, then drew her close and held her against his shoulder. Frail and birdlike, she trembled in his arms. With one hand he caressed her wild hair.

When Farrel looked up again his breath caught in his throat. Creatures were gliding down the bridge and emerging on the marsh. Huge and monstrous they were, with bulky shoulders, sallow hides, and sloping, hairless skulls. Armed with axes and hammers the first group of creatures slogged forward, approaching the dreamers.

Farrel lifted Kerrawyn in his arms, preparing to flee. Sontoral and Glenna recoiled. But the druid held up his arms.

“No need to fear,” he said. “These beings are only images, portents of what might be. They cannot harm us, yet.”

The chieftain of Tronwall was not entirely convinced. But he set the young woman down behind him and stood his ground. Clustered near the druid, the dreamers stared as the fearsome creatures marched to within a few yards of them—and moved on.

As the monsters slouched by Farrel gazed at them with sickening fascination. Though surely no beings of Earth, they yet stirred dim primordial memories that filled him with loathing and hate.

Abruptly the vision altered again. Now the dreamers saw a fleeting succession of images: the creatures stalking through the night, approaching huts and cottages near the marsh, smashing down doors and walls to drag the inhabitants from their beds. Farrel heard the screams of women as they watched their husbands butchered, the wailing of babes lifted from their cribs to be torn apart by fiendish hands. Helpless to stop the appalling vision, he watched many of his clanspeople dragged back to the marsh to be devoured alive.

On that grisly scene the vision mercifully faded. Farrel found himself with the other dreamers, standing on the hilltop once more. Across the lowlands, shrouded in mist, the arc of blue light faintly glowed. Aghast, the dreamers gazed at one another.

“I am ready for this dream to end now,” Sontoral the harper declared.

“What meaning do you read in all this?” Aidan, the harper’s sister, asked the druid.

“A warning of invasion from another realm,” Valin muttered, plainly as shaken as the others. “A prodigious omen, especially outlandish in this age when the Earth is receding from contiguous worlds. Still, if true, it would explain why we are assembled here. Of old, the Earth protected herself by summoning her children to her defense. From this it would follow that we six are called upon to foil the invasion.”

“How can we do so?” Farrel demanded, enraged by what he had seen.

Valin sighed. “That answer I do not have. When I wake I will seclude myself in the forest and try to learn more of this bridge of light. I have many allies who may give me counsel. If I learn that this dream portends a true danger, I will summon each of you, in the waking world.”

“This has been most fascinating,” Sontoral remarked. “But now my sister and I are ready for more ordinary dreams.”

He gripped Aidan’s wrist and started to leave. But she held back, unsure.

“Do you mean you would refuse to help us?” the druid said.

Sontoral frowned and cleared his throat before answering. “I am sorry. But Aidan and I have other schemes to hatch, and flesh-and-blood enemies to fight.”

“What enemies?” Farrel asked.

Sontoral gave a hard smile. “Some things are better not spoken of, even in dreams.”

He tugged Aidan’s arm. But before she could turn away Kerrawyn spoke out in loud and forceful voice.

“Sontoral and Aidan belong to the Society of the Black Glove, a secret band dedicated to driving the English from Wales.”

The Welshman and his sister froze, glowering at the witch. “I suppose an inner voice told you this?” the harper said.

“Friends,” Kerrawyn stared at them earnestly, her eyes still wet with tears. “Your own minds told me this. Sometimes when thoughts are strongly felt—as yours in this are strong as iron—I hear them in my head as clear as voices. You have no enemies here. I spoke only to show you that I understand your duty to your people. Yet I beg you to put that aside for a time, because I feel in my heart how sorely we may need your help.”

Sontoral scowled and looked away. But his sister returned Kerrawyn’s gaze for a long moment, like one enspelled by a glamour. Finally, Aidan shook her head.

“I do not know how to answer. All this is a dream, as we all agree. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that what we have seen portended is real.”

Suddenly the hilltop brightened. The dreamers glanced about, then upward, for it seemed the glaring light shone from above—a blue light like the one that gleamed over the marsh.

“We are discovered,” Valin cried, holding up his wand as if for protection.

With a cringing in his gut, Farrel sensed a presence, a powerful awareness probing his mind. The blue light intensified to a piercing flash that sizzled, then clapped like thunder.

Next moment, the six sleepers in their far-flung bodies awoke.

                                                   ***
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Interview with the Sea God

The Treasure of the Sun God is Book 3 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. In this novel, our hero Korax has returned to his home island of Rhodes after adventures and misadventures in Egypt and the Greek capital at Alexandria.

Though young, Korax is a skilled magician and student of the Mysteries. He wants only a peaceful life as a citizen of Rhodes and son of a merchant family. But times in Rhodes are hard. Bad weather and piracy have combined to decimate the shipping trade. When the loss of two of his familys’ trading ships threatens catastrophe, Korax decides he must invoke Poseidon, the Lord of the Sea, who is known to be sympathetic to the pirates of Crete …

The modern harbor of Rhodes
Harbor of Modern Rhodes Source : https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Greece/South_Aegean/Dodekanisos/Rhodes/photo695497.htm
On the evening of a dark moon, Korax walked alone to the end of the mole. He wore a hooded blue cloak trimmed in silver and carried a wineskin and a ceremonial dagger. On his chest was the amulet Miriam had designed.

In the past month, two more cargos from Rhodos had been stolen by pirates. Worse, word reached the town that the family’s vessel, the Melancarmia, had sunk in a storm off Locri. Korax had decided he must speak with the god of the sea.

Behind him, the last remnant of daylight died over the city. All around him surged the gray, unquiet waters. He climbed onto the parapet wall and pulled the stopper from the wineskin.

Whispering words of offering, he poured the wine onto the rocks below.

Returning to the center of the parapet, he drew his dagger and traced a magic circle in the air, an invisible boundary of protection. Next, he drew the sigil of Poseidon, then of Set, the Egyptian god of the abyss.

He spread out his arms and spoke his summons: “Poseidon, son of Kronos, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea, accept my humble offering in peace and deign to speak with me. Arise from your golden palace beneath the waves and come into my presence, mighty lord.”

He waited. After a time, a gust of wind lifted his cloak. The nocturnal sea surrounded him like an enormous living spirit, a god of old and dreadful power.
Image of Poseidon rising from the sea
Poseidon: Source: https://everyfactever.com/facts-about-poseidon/
“Mortal man of Rhodes, I know you. You have sought to pierce my intentions with your tiny mind. Now you would cajole my will with a meager spilling of wine?”

The voice, compounded of wind and wave, reverberated to the bottom of Korax’s soul, where it roused an instinctual terror. Korax lowered his arms, pressed his feet firmly on the rock.

“Mighty Poseidon, I am in truth but a puny mortal, and have no wish to rouse your enmity. I only ask what I can do, what the men of Rhodes can do, to appease your wrath and secure your protection.”

The wind blew harder, salt stinging his eyes.

“Of old, three sons were born to my father Kronos, the devourer of his children. When we gods overthrew Kronos and chained his body to the pillars of the world, we divided his realm into three. Zeus took the sky, Hades the underworld, and the sea became mine to rule. Earth and Olympus, we agreed to hold in joint and equal dominion. But now on earth and sea alike, men disdain my worship. Those who do offer prayers and sacrifices make empty gestures; the awe and fear have dwindled in their hearts. I will not succor them.”

Korax lifted his chin and answered, “It is true that many men have lost their belief in the old gods. But the seafarers of Rhodes still honor you with all due reverence. I have sailed with them, and I know this to be true.”

“I will not debate my whims and actions with you—I am a god! I will make the waves crash and the storms blow as the urges strike me. So it has always been and will always be. As for the sea-wolves, the men of Crete worship me with fitting veneration. I will not scorn their sacrifices, nor will I help the Rhodians destroy them.”

Now the wind was howling. Back along the mole, Korax could see the spume of waves splashing on the rocks. He saw no further point in trying to placate the sea god. He only wished to end the audience and withdraw himself to safety.

“Mighty Poseidon, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea: I thank you for your presence here at the boundary of your realm. To pay you further homage, I will make worthy sacrifice at your temple.”

He bowed low and stayed down. Gradually the wind died away and the powerful immanence dissipated. Korax rose and quelled his fear with long, deliberate breaths.

The sky was starless. Across the harbor, the braziers and lanterns of the city cast the only feeble light. Korax picked his way warily back along the mole, pressed on both sides by the dark and sinister sea, feeling defeated and utterly alone.


Treasure of the Sun Gode

The Treasure of the Sun God is on sale
the week of December 14th for just 99¢.
 

Or you can check out the earlier books in the series here.

Holding Up the Sky

Lately I’ve been feeling like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. (Yes, I know I’m not the only one.) Thinking of that phrase this morning reminded me of Hecules and how he carried the sky (or some say the world) on his shoulders as part of one of his labors.

Statue of Hercules
Source: https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Heroes/Heracles/heracles.html

As you might remember, Hercules (Greek Heracles) was a demi-god, a son of Zeus. In the myth, he murdered his wife and children in a fit of madness. To atone, he was given twelve nearly-impossible tasks to perform. One of the last was to obtain the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The titan Atlas, who held up the heavens (or some say, the world) was one of the few who knew the location of the sacred garden where the apples could be found. Atlas refused to disclose the location, but offered to fetch the apples himself if Hercules would hold up the sky while he was gone.

Contemplating the story, I wrote this poem some years back…

Hercules with the Sky on His Shoulders

Who’d have thought the sky could be so heavy?
Below it looks so empty, full of light,
Not this altar slab of bloody marble
Pinching the bone at the back of my neck.
I should have thought to fold the lion skin,
Make it a pillow to soften the pain.

The Nemean Lion–there was a foe.
His famous hide no blade or point could pierce.
Lucky I caught him sleeping, belly full.
Still, not many heroes, or even gods,
Could have strangled him, won that prize pelt. But
I was stronger then, not so worn with toil.

So many labors, monsters, wars–For what?
Expiation? How can that be justice
When you can’t even remember the crime?
Only awaking from a drunken sleep
To recognize the slaughtered innocents:
My wife, my babies–No! Don’t think about it.

I might have been a fool to trust that giant;
He seemed a bit too ready to oblige,
As if, almost, he knew I was coming.
Maybe Hera put a plan in his ear:
Offer to fetch the gold apples yourself;
Leave him supporting the sky forever.

Oh, that would be so very like the gods:
Send a man fishing in a leaky boat
Then wonder at his prayers as he’s drowning.
Better luck to try and drain the ocean.
That’s always been my way: tear up the roots,
Topple the whole…Yes, look where it’s brought me.

What would happen if I just let it go,
Slip aside and let the Cosmos collapse?
Would Olympus fall, and Zeus my father–
If he is my father–Would his house fall?
The glorious palace, the smug, bright gods…
If I could only be there to see it.

But would it be so bad to wake a shade
In Hades realm, to slowly fade to nothing?
No more tragedies, no scenes at all,
Just a quiet, merciful dissolving…
No! I can bear this pain much, much longer.
My knees will not buckle; I am resolved.

When the giant returns, although it be
Only to smirk and gloat, I’ll find a way
To make him take back his burden, and then
Carry the apples back to Argolis,
Laugh at the king’s dire disappointment
As I spill them glittering at his feet.

I will finish his trials, every one.
And on the day I’m released, scale the heights
Of Olympus, break down the shining doors,
Storm through the gaggle of horrified gods,
Face Zeus, stare into his uncaring eye,
And demand to know the reason.

Statue of Atlas holding up the world
Atlas holding up the world. Source: Wikipedia

Hope you liked my little poem. And if you’re struggling to hold up your world right now, take heart.

Even demigods must endure hard times.

_____________________

For more stories based on Greek mythology, check out my Conjurer of Rhodes titles.

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.