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.

My story of Briseis, titled Warrior’s Prize, is still in the editing phase, and I will be submitting it for publication as soon as it’s finished. I will update my progress on this website.

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 Penmore Press in 2019.

About the Phoenicians

Phoenician Merchant Ship
Phoenician Merchant Ship

ABOUT THE PHOENICIANS IN SHADOW OF ATHENA

I’ve always been intrigued by the Phoenicians, and as soon as the plot for Shadow of Athena began to take form, I knew that my young hero and heroine would have an encounter with this culture, and part of their journey would take place on a Phoenician ship. After all, the Phoenicians sailed all over the Aegean. How could Arion and Marpessa not run into them?

How would they communicate? Phoenician was a Semitic language related to Hebrew—not even close to Greek. And how would the Phoenicians have reacted to two young Greeks adrift in the world trying to make their way home? They would not have been welcoming, of that I was sure. Skilled sailors with superior ships, they would have inevitably safeguarded their navigating secrets from outsiders. Taking on Greek passengers would have been an anomaly for them. At the same time, they were not above making use of two able-bodied young people who could help with the incredibly difficult chores of navigating a huge trading ship across the seas in winter. With these thoughts in mind, I let the story unfold.

Unlike the early Greeks, the Phoenicians were willing to sail at night and even during the season of storms. They could navigate using the North Star. The navigational equipment on board their ships was superior and extremely well organized under the vigilant eye of the captain’s assistant, someone known as the “look-out man,” whose job it was to see that all the equipment was well maintained and well stowed. According to Xenophon, the Greek Ischomachus said, upon seeing a Phoenician ship, “I saw the largest amount of naval tackling separately disposed in the smallest stowage possible. For a ship, as you well know, is brought to anchor, and again got under way, by a vast number of wooden implements and of ropes, and sails the sea by means of a quantity of rigging, and is armed with a number of contrivances against hostile vessels, and carries about with it a large supply of weapons for the crew, and, besides, has all the utensils that a man keeps in his dwelling-house, for each of the messes.”* The look-out man knew precisely where each piece of equipment was and how to reach it even under the harshest conditions and the most violent storms.

The practical Phoenicians did not keep anything extraneous or superfluous on their tightly run ships. In our story, Arion and Marpessa, desperate to reach home, offer their services in exchange for passage aboard a Phoenician ship. The Phoenicians decide to avail themselves of the Greek pair’s skills as their trading ship undertakes a challenging and dangerous journey. But they have lied about the ship’s destination: they are bound for the Black Sea instead of Greece. Marpessa is passing as a boy for her own safety. When the sharp-eyed look-out man is about to penetrate her disguise, Arion, all but chained to his rowing station, cannot protect her. And the two have uncovered too many arcane navigational secrets. What will be their fate once the Phoenicians decide they have outlived their usefulness?

*Phoenicia, Phoenician Ships, Navigation and Commercehttp://phoenicia.org/ships.html#ixzz2qnN7sx12