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“The Mighty Dead” by Adam Nicolson—A Book Review

homerTHE MIGHTY DEAD, by Adam Nicholson—A Book Review

 

Who was Homer? Was he (or she) one person or many? Did a person named Homer even exist? Are the Homeric epics, so rich in detail, a record of a great conflict that took place at ancient Troy? And if so, why have archaeologists never reached a consensus about when it took place or indeed if it happened at all? Those of us who are interested in ancient history in general and Homer in particular cannot help but wonder about these questions.

Being passionate about Homer, I was thrilled to discover The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. It is a riveting, unexpectedly beautiful book, an extraordinary redefinition of Homer that takes us back through the mists of time for a look at what just might have been the origin of the Homeric epics.

The Trojan War, Nicolson believes, took place far earlier than we have previously conjectured. He imagines a conflict, or clash of cultures, “a fusion of two very different worlds,” that happened around 2,000 BC between “the semi-nomadic, hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppes,” the peoples who migrated south to inhabit the land we know as Greece, and “the sophisticated, authoritarian, and literate cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean.” He defends his thesis with convincing evidence from ancient history, archaeological sites and relics, the oral traditions of Bronze Age cultures, and many other sources. “Greekness,” he writes, “and eventually Europeanness, emerged from the meeting and melding of those two worlds.” His quest takes us on a journey of discovery, and in the process we learn who—or what—Homer is, and why he is relevant to our modern civilization.

To Nicolson the question is not “Who was Homer?” but “What is Homer?” Although Nicolson personifies Homer as “he,” he defines him not a single person or even a group but as “the inherited tradition and memory” of a culture, passed down over millennia, and its essence, he says, is “a form of concentrated wisdom about the condition of life on this earth.”

But Homer is real and may be encountered in one’s life, as Nicolson did, and Keats before him, and many others whose stories Nicolson relates, and as I too have felt in coming face to face with the truth of the Homeric poems. Reading Nicolson’s marvelous book, I found myself saying, Yes, this makes sense, or Yes, this is why I find Homer so compelling, and highlighting some of the most beautifully written and cogent passages so that I could return to them again and again. I recommend this book to all who care about history and the deepest truths of our journey on this earth.

Reviewed by Elena Douglas (AKA Barbara Brunetti)

Who Was Briseis?

 

Briseis may have looked like this.
Briseis may have looked like this.

When I first read the Iliad, Briseis captured my imagination and begged me to tell her story. Who was Briseis? Everyone’s heard of Achilles. Mention the name of Briseis, however, and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. A very minor character in Homer’s Iliad, she only appears a few times in the epic and has just one short if poignant speech. Yet without her there would be no quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, no Iliad at all.

Wife of the prince of a small kingdom near Troy, she must have had great beauty and courage to instantly win the heart of Achilles, the mighty warrior who sacked her city, killing her husband and three brothers. What were her thoughts and feelings as she stood before him realizing that she was now his slave? After all the havoc he had wreaked in her life, how could she come to love him? Yet she clearly did.

As I began to write about her, I was interested to find out if others had done so before me. A few historical novels of the Trojan War touch on the love story of Achilles and Briseis, all with varying interpretations. I also discovered two novels entirely about Briseis. Naturally I was curious about the competition.

The first one was Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B. Franklin, originally published in 1998. I was not overly impressed. The historical details are accurate, and the author follows the general storyline but gets sidetracked by having Briseis jump into bed with all the men she meets. And did the author have to describe these men’s private parts in such minute detail? What woman writes like that? Well, it turns out that Sarah B. Franklin is a pseudonym. “She” is actually a man, author of many successful works of science fiction and fantasy.

The second book was Hand of Fire, by Judith Starkston, published by Fireship Press in 2014. Ms. Starkston’s book is well written and meticulously researched. Her Troy and its surrounds are peopled by the Hittites, and Briseis is a healing priestess to a Hittite goddess. Ms. Starkston closely follows the Iliad’s storyline—as I do in my novel of Briseis, Warrior’s Prize. Ms. Starkston too has created a strong heroine in charge of her own destiny. Beyond that, her book and mine have differences: the beginning and end, the way the love story unfolds, the role of the gods, and more. Hand of Fire is a most rewarding read. I highly recommend it.

If you enjoy ancient history and are interested in a passionate love story, check out Warrior’s Prize when it comes out with Knox Robinson Publishing in 2017. For more about it and my other books, including Shadow of Athena, due to be published in 2016 by Knox Robinson, visit my website at http://www.elenadouglas.com and my author page “Elena Douglas” on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter at “Barbara Brunetti.”

A Direct Link Between Myth and History?

legionxiiiiIs the bizarre ritual of the Lokrian maidens a direct link between myth and recorded history? Very possibly. It began as an ancient atonement for a crime committed so far back in the mists of time that we only know of it through oral tradition, yet it continued for centuries into recorded history.

Legend has it that, during the sack of Troy, a sacrilege was committed in Athena’s temple. The Greek warrior Ajax’s rape of Cassandra while she sought asylum in the sanctuary was so outrageous that the wrathful goddess sank his home-bound fleet, killing him and all his men, and then, still not satisfied, wreaked famine and pestilence on his native realm, Lokris. When the beleaguered citizens asked the Oracle of Delphi how to lift her curse, they learned that the goddess demanded two maidens, sworn to virginity, to be sent on a perilous journey across the Aegean to serve as menial slaves for a year in her temple in Troy. This was to happen annually for a thousand years. The girls were chosen by lot. The ritual specified that once they landed on the Trojan shore, they were hunted like prey, fair game to be killed until they reached the sanctuary of the temple. If they survived their journey and their servitude, they returned home at the end of a year, to be replaced by two more girls, but had to remain virgins for life. If one or both of the girls were killed, replacements had to be sent.

While it may sound far-fetched, we know from historical evidence that this ritual was actually carried out annually until around 300 B.C.E.  The Trojan War, if it happened at all, supposedly took place around 1200 B.C.E. That means the ritual probably went on for eight or nine hundred years.

What was it like, I wondered, to be one of those maidens chosen against her will and bound for an unforgiving shore? This was the genesis of my novel Shadow of Athena, set in Archaic Greece, in which sixteen-year-old Marpessa’s name is drawn to be one of the unfortunate maidens.

The day she is chosen is just the beginning of Marpessa’s troubles. Many unforeseen calamities befall her and the male slave sent to escort her. Even if the two can find their way home at the end of their trials, Marpessa’s vengeful thwarted suitor awaits them there with murder in his heart.

To find out what happens, look for Shadow of Athena, by Elena Douglas, published by Knox Robinson Publishing in 2016.

Update on Publication of SHADOW OF ATHENA

The publication date of Shadow of Athena has been postponed to an undetermined date in 2016, most likely in the fall. This is because Knox Robinson Publishing has changed distributors. I’ve been assured that books due out in 2015 will be given priority in the new year. I will post the date of publication as soon as I learn when it will be.

When this change came about, I had already been given a cover design. I’m pleased and excited by the cover art for Shadow of Athena. Here it is:

shadow of athena

Title Change: ANCIENT WRATH Is Now SHADOW OF ATHENA

After a lot of consideration, I have changed the title of Ancient Wrath to Shadow of Athena. It was suggested to me that “Ancient Wrath” sounds as if it is about warriors and wars. Also, the “ancient” was confusing. Did it refer to a wrath that was ancient to our hero and heroine? Or did it just indicate that the story took place in ancient times? So “Shadow of Athena” is a better fit. The word “shadow” is mysterious and can suggest either threat or protection, both of which are applicable to Athena in our story. Look for more forthcoming posts about SHADOW OF ATHENA, to be published on November 24, 2015.

A Map for ANCIENT WRATH: The Ancient Aegean World circa 700 B.C.

AncientGreece scaled down2
Graphic artist Carol Collier produced this map of the Aegean circa 700. B.C., to accompany ANCIENT WRATH when it is published, so that readers can trace Marpessa and Arion’s journeys through the world of Archaic Greece. Click on the map to enlarge it.

The publication of ANCIENT WRATH is set for November 24, 2015.