Someone who read my book asked what the Phoenician ship that Marpessa and Arion traveled on looked like. So here is a picture. If any of my readers have questions about SHADOW OF ATHENA, I would welcome them. Click on this link and it will take you right to the Goodreads page where I answer questions. https://www.goodreads.com/author/16986460.Elena_Douglas/questions
My childhood friend, Ann Metlay of Cottonwood, Arizona, has forged a new career as an artist in a unique medium. Ann creates sculptures from wood she finds in the desert and woodlands near her home. Here is how she describes her work: “I see myself as an assemblage artist, not a sculptor. Nature shapes every piece of wood I find. Using a dremel, a sander, dental picks, wire brushes, and sandpaper, I clean off the mud and dried bits of plant life from each piece I collect. I use primarily papier mache to join these elements into sculptures, where the lines of a palo verde branch gossip with the nubs of cedar bark to form couplings of organic beauty.”
She has created some interesting and truly beautiful works of art. She has also posted a review of my novel SHADOW OF ATHENA in her blog. Check out her website here: Adrift: Desert Wood Assemblages
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.
Is 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 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?
THE LOCRIAN MAIDENS
When doing research on the Trojan War for my novel, Warrior’s Prize, I came upon an amazing story concerning a unique, bizarre ritual with its roots in legend that was carried out well into historical times. It provided an actual link between the Trojan War and verifiable recorded history. And it was so compelling that I knew at once it was the premise of my novel Shadow of Athena.
It began with a sacrilege committed at Troy. Homer tells of two heroes by the name of Ajax. One was a mighty warrior who died before Troy fell. But our story concerns the second Ajax, a lesser man who hailed from Locris in mainland Greece. During the sack of Troy, when the princess Cassandra, sister of Hector, sought refuge in the temple of Athena, this Ajax followed her there, tore her from the sanctuary and, some versions say, raped her. Ajax’s fellow warriors realized immediately that he had committed a great sacrilege. Fearing that the goddess’s wrath would fall on all of them, they tried to stone him to death. Whereupon Ajax saved himself by running back into the temple, clinging to the image of Athena, and vowing to expiate his sin.
But it was not to be. On his journey home his ship was wrecked near the coast of Greece, and Ajax was flung into the raging sea. He managed to scramble onto a rock near the shore, where he shouted his defiance of the gods. His hubris had passed all bounds. Poseidon sheared off the section of rock to which he clung, and he fell into the sea and drowned.
Athena, unappeased, sent drought and pestilence to his homeland Locris. When the citizens sought help from the oracle of Delphi, they were told that to propitiate the goddess they must send two maidens to her temple in Troy every year for a thousand years. Thus began the ritual that continued into recorded history.
Every year two maidens were chosen by lot to go to Troy, accompanied on their journey across the sea by two Locrian guides. The ritual decreed that once they reached the Trojan shore, they were fair game to be killed by armed men who lay in wait for them and who were hailed as heroes if they killed one of the maidens. Not until they reached the temple itself were they safe. If a maiden was killed, her body was burned as a defilement on unfruitful wood and thrown into the sea. And a replacement from Locris had to be sent.
The maidens who survived this journey had their heads shorn and went barefoot, clothed in the single garment of a slave. They spent their days in degrading servitude, washing and sweeping the outer temple but not allowed to enter the sanctuary itself. And when their year was finished, they returned home but could not marry and must remain virgins the rest of their lives.
The story of the Locrian maidens was fairly begging to be told. And so my novel, Shadow of Athena, began to take shape. The maiden Marpessa, a carefree young girl who loved all living things and wanted only to live a normal secure life, found her name drawn to become one of the temple slaves. And so began the adventure that would uproot her from her home and endanger her very life.
Walter Leaf. A Study in Homeric Geography. MacMillan and Company limited. London,1912. Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing.
James M. Redfield. The Locrian Maidens. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 2003.
Photos by Bruce Precourt. Used with permission.