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The Agamemneion

The Agamemneion is a shrine located on the left bank of the Chavos river at Mycenae.  It was first erected in 700 B.C., though it is unclear whether Agamemnon was the original focus of devotion.  The first votives, such as the inscribed pot below, appear much later, after the shrine was refurbished in the fourth century B.C.

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Agamemnon had hero-cults elsewhere in Greece.  One of the most curious comes from Amyklai, Sparta, where from 700 B.C. he was worshipped along with Cassandra (known locally as Alexandra).  Strange, to find Agamemnon receiving honors alongside a Trojan princess in Sparta, when his wife, Clytemnestra, was herself a Spartan princess.

Orestes also had a hero-cult in Sparta.

Human Sacrifice in the Mycenaean Age

A recent archaeological find on Mount Lykaion in central Greece has caused quite a buzz.  The remains of a young man, missing the top portion of his skull, laid on an east-west axis in an ash altar suggests that rarity of rarities in Greece: evidence of a human sacrifice.

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The altar and the young man date back to the end of the Mycenaean period, about 1100 B.C.  A sensational find of a Bronze Age Minoan sacrifice interrupted was found in the late 70s at Anemospilia, on Crete.  That dated from circa 1700 B.C.  No such find has ever been made on the Greek mainland till now.

Days ago, when this story broke, I posted links on Twitter, only to have one angry Greek follower insist that the news was propaganda and a hoax, and that the Greeks never practiced human sacrifice.

Yet for a culture that supposedly never carried out human sacrifices, the Greeks certainly dwell on it enough.

While the Greeks seem to have abandoned the practice of human sacrifice by Classical times, there are certainly hints that in times of distress their forebears might have offered a human to the gods.  The legends abound with tales of human offerings: the sacrifices of Iphigenia and Polyxena that served as tragic bookends to the Trojan War, Achilles' gruesome offering of twelve Trojan youths at Patroklos' funeral, Minos' tribute of Athenian youths to the Minotaur, the maenads tearing apart Orpheus, Pentheus, and so forth.

Legends, you say, are not archaeological facts.  Yes, but legends don't arise from nothing; there is usually a kernal of truth to such tales.  Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, and others told of a distant past in which men sacrificed other men (and women) to the gods--although, in their contemporary age, their distaste for these ancient rituals comes through.  Euripides, for example, was so troubled by the Iphigenia story that he wrote two plays about her: Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Taurus.  He renegotiates the Iphigenia story so that Artemis spares the young woman's life by substituting a deer on the altar, yet the goddess also spirits the princess of Mycenae away to serve as high priestess of her cult in Taurus, where the people regularly sacrifice strangers to the goddess.

Back to the archaeology, one of the Pylos tablets refers to offerings to Zeus and Hera: one gold bowl and human for each.  Certainly, it's enigmatic.  The man and woman being given might be intended as human sacrifices, but to serve in a sanctuary.  It's not definitive evidence, no, but given that this tablet was produced just a few days or weeks before Pylos was burned and abandoned, at a time when the entire eastern Aegean was going through a catastrophic upheaval, it is possible that the Pylians tried to avert disaster by making a rare human offering.

Another such possible offering was discovered in the ruins of a house near Therapne, Sparta.  The skeleton of a woman with her hands behind her back as if tied (the restraints would have disintegrated long ago) suggests she might have been a sacrifice.  Alternatively, she might also have been a murder victim.
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I mention the cult of Zeus Lykaion in my most recent novel, Danae.  This was a werewolf cult, in which the adherents believed that through ritual they could for a time become werewolves.  According to legend, in ancient times King Lykaion ruled the area.  He instituted the worship of Zeus on the mountain that bears his name, but a time came when his hubris overruled his good judgment, and he prepared a feast for the god containing both human and animal meat, to see whether the omnipotent god could tell the difference.  Angry, Zeus either slew Lykaion and his sons, or transformed Lykaion into a wolf.

According to Plato and others, a sacrificed boy would be cooked along with a sacrificial animal, and those who partook of this grisly feast would become a wolf for nine years.

The indigenous, prehistoric peoples who predated the Mycenaeans were known as Pelasgians,  Arcadia, where Mount Lykaion is located, was a holdover of Pelasgian culture long after much of Greece was Hellenized.  So those who offered the young man to Zeus Lykaion lived at the end of the Mycenaean period, but may not have been Mycenaean themselves.

Minoan Names

Another entry on the work Richard Vallance has been doing on the decipherment of Linear A.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the research has been the various eponyms, or personal names, that have turned up.  With these names come questions:

  1. Are the names male or female?  With some, I think we can say that they're definitely male.  Dumirewe the shepherd, for example.  With many others, however, it's unclear, because we don't know how the Minoan names differentiated between men and women.  Is "Turunuseme" a man or a woman?  What about "Adunitana?"

  2. How do we normalize these names?  Linear B is an early form of Greek, so it's much easier to normalize, or get the spoken/regular form of the name, because Greek is still a living language.  E-ke-ro, for example, becomes "Hector."  A-pi-er-a becomes "Amphiera," a woman's name. What do we do about the names we find on Linear A tablets.  Was "Siramaritai" (which I suspect is a woman's name) pronounced just so, or might it have been pronounced "Sirmarta," or "Siramarti?"  (Personally, I think "Siramaritai" is pretty just as it is."

Hopefully one of my readers who has more insight into Linear A and B can speak further as to this question.

Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

It's taken me this long to talk about Richard Vallance's Linear A and B linguistics blog because it's not only dense with the kind of material that makes aficionados of ancient languages go weak at the knees, but also a bit intimidating for the average layperson. I remember taking a semester of linguistic theory for my Master's, and even my eyes glaze over at the talk of supersyllagrams and ideograms. If you're thinking Michael Ventris as I mention all this, you're on the right track. Richard's blog even has material relating to the late pioneer in the decipherment of Linear B.

Linguistic technobabble aside, there are some fascinating things to learn about Linear A and B from Richard's blog. Prior to this, I did not know that Linear A tablets differ in appearance from Linear B tablets; Linear A tablets are a bit taller than long, shaped more like Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets than Linear B tablets, which are more rectangular and cigar-shaped. Richard also has some beautiful photographs of parts of the various phases of the Knossos palace that you don't often see; he chose to photograph more of drainage gutters and different kinds of masonry than decorated rooms.

Richard's recently done some work in attempting to decipher Linear A based on, I believe, the similarities between certain Linear A and B signs.  I say I believe because I'm not knowledgeable enough about ancient languages or decipherment to fully understand how he gets from point A to point B, but Richard is the kind of guy who thoroughly documents his process and rationale, he's affiliated with a number of respectable academic institutions and individuals, and his work does look promising.  Minoan Linear A seems to be more of the same kind of inventorying that we see in Mycenaean Linear B.  If you're into linguistic geekery, check out his work:

Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

Trojan War Playing Cards

Well, my Kickstarter donation to Greek Myth Comix finally paid dividends, and I received my pack of Trojan War Playing Cards today.

These are slick, professionally packaged cards, glossy and colorful, and as durable as any traditional casino pack you might buy.  Check out the spread:

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The deck is laid out thus:
Spades: the Greek Army
Hearts: the women of the Trojan War
Clubs: the Trojan Army
Diamonds: the gods
Jokers: various Muses

Some of the cards are beautifully tinted, and all have the characters' names written in English and Greek.  I was happy to see that I can actually read the names in Greek.

I don't know when Greek Myth Comix will offer these packs again, but since we follow each other on Twitter I'll keep you updated.

Clytemnestra, by the way, demonstrated her relief that Agamemnon's finally come home.  There is a Clytemnestra card in the deck, too.

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The Menelaion

A few days ago when I posted about Bronze Age Sparta, I also posted an image of the Menelaion which some readers took to be the ruins of Menelaus's royal palace. The Menelaion was but one of several constructions in the area; the royal site of Therapne contains a number of Mycenaean ruins spread over the neighboring hills.

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The Menelaion is a type of monument known as a heroon, which is dedicated to the practice of cult hero worship. A reader asked me why the ancients would worship Helen, who brought such destruction and suffering to her people. It's important to remember that the ancient Greek definition of "hero" is not our Judeo-Christian one. Greek heroes (and heroines) were often of semi-divine birth--definitely not ordinary folk like you or I--who performed great deeds and were subject to great suffering; they were not worshipped because they were nice people, but because people believed they could intervene in a crisis. Agamemnon, for example, had a hero cult at Mycenae. Herakles had a hero cult, as did Theseus and Orestes. Helen was one of the few women who had hero-cult status.

There is an apocryphal story about Helen from Classical Sparta which illustrates the kind of power the ancient Greeks believed she had. Once upon a time there lived a very ugly girl whose nurse took her to a shrine to leave an offering for Helen. While there, the pair encountered a most mysterious and beautiful woman who kissed the girl on the brow and blessed her. From that day forward, the girl grew in beauty, and was held to be so lovely that she eventually married one of the Spartan kings. Helen could bestow beauty and kharis, also known as charisma, or what we commonly refer to as sex appeal. She might also have been worshipped as a kind of fertility goddess.

Why was Menelaus, a second-rate warrior and history's most famous cuckold, worshipped?  Because of his association with Helen.  One version of myth holds that, as Zeus's son-in-law, Menelaus is assured a place with Helen in the Elysian Fields--although, if yet another variation on myth plays out, he's going to have sit by while Helen marries Achilles.

The Menelaion monument tourists visit today was erected in the fifth century B.C. Under this limestone construction are strata containing remains of earlier shrines. Around the monument, archaeologists have discovered many votive objects specifically dedicated to Menelaus and Helen. One vessel, an arbyllos, is inscribed: "ΔΕΙΝΙΣ ΑΝΕΘEΚΕ [ΕΛΕΝΗΙ, ΣΥΖΥΓΟΝ] ΜΕΝΕΛΑΪ" (Deinis offered to Helen, wife of Menelaus). Hairpins have been found dedicated to Helen. A stone tablet found in a cistern was dedicated to Menelaus.

Elsewhere, on a nearby hill, archaeologists discovered Mycenaean ruins dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries B.C. These appeared to be the remains of a very small, second-rate palace that many archaeologists doubted could be that of Menelaus and Helen. However, the hill on which these ruins stand is prone to wind and erosion; what remains are probably the storerooms/basement of a much larger structure that has since dropped off into the ravine below. If you are interested in the palace of Therapne, Bettany Hughes in her 2005 documentary Helen of Troy visits the site and discusses its condition.

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Bronze Age Sparta

When we think about ancient Sparta, an image of Frank Miller's 300 inevitably comes to mind.  So when we talk about the story of the Trojan War and the beautiful Helen coming from Sparta, it's easy to assume that she came from a society where the boys were taken from home and enrolled in military barracks at age seven, and where even the girls physically trained to prepare them for their state duty: producing as many strong, powerful Spartan babies as possible.

This question of Spartan culture became important when I was researching Helen's Daughter way back in 2010-11.  What sort of world did Helen and Hermione inhabit?  How did it relate to its neighbors in Pylos and Mycenae?

Let's start with the familiar idea of hardcore, badass Sparta.  The Sparta of King Leonidas and Thermopylae was Classical Sparta, the militaristic Greek state created by the quasi-mythic Lycurgus in the seventh-eighth centuries B.C.  The Sparta of the Trojan War was a Bronze Age kingdom from the thirteenth century B.C., four hundred years earlier.  Assuming that ancient writers like Plutarch were not exaggerating the extremes of Classical Spartan militarism, the two Spartas had nothing in common except that they occupied the same piece of real estate.


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The Menelaion, with the snowy peaks of Mount Taygetus in the distance.  In the Classical period, the Spartan elders of the Genousia allegedly threw defective babies into a chasm on Mount Taygetus.  This chasm has never been found, nor has any archaeological evidence of such extreme infanticide.

A French classicist, François Ollier, argued in his 1933 book The Spartan Mirage that "a major scholarly problem regarding Sparta is that all the surviving accounts of Sparta were written by non-Spartans who often presented an excessively idealized image of Sparta."  The consensus among historians today is that Sparta was not as hardcore as earlier thought.

So when we imagine Helen of Sparta, we should forget about the Sparta made infamous through Plutarch and later sources.  Helen's Sparta would have been part of the Mycenaean Koine.  Helen would have worn jewelry made by Cretan artists, wearing scented oils imported through, perhaps, the port of Tiryns or Pylos, worshipped before idols made, perhaps, in a workshop near Mycenae.  She would have feasted on red meat and wine, rather than the notorious melas zomas, the black blood broth of legend.

Thirteenth century B.C. Sparta belonged to what is known as the "Mycenaean Koine," or shared culture.  Mycenaean kings like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Nestor shared the same taste in architecture, decoration, and material objects.  Homer in The Odyssey describes Menelaus's palace as being decorated with silver and gold.  This was not merely hyperbole.  Surviving evidence reveals the garishness of the Mycenaean palaces.  These two Cretan-manufactured cups from a Spartan site named Vapheio, for example, speak to a culture that Leonidas and Lycurgus would have frowned upon:

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A few years ago, I don't recall exactly when or where, I encountered a powerful idea that's stayed with me.  It concerns Homer's Odyssey, and its hero, Odysseus.

Odysseus is arguably the most unreliable narrator in Western literature.  His reputation is built on cunning and deceit.  All we know about the period between the time he left Troy and the time he washed ashore on Phaeacia is what he tells us.  He could be lying about everything, and we, the audience, would never know because there are no other survivors to contradict him.

Zachary Mason's odd little tome, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, captures some of that spirit.  Working on the conceit that archaeologists have discovered forty-five "lost" fragments of the Odyssey, Mason presents forty-four short works that reimagine, reinterpret, and play with Homer's original text.  There are alternate episodes in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find the island mysteriously abandoned, or his wife Penelope remarried, or dead.  Odysseus meets his own doppelganger.  He finds himself in a sanitorium unable to remember anything, in a cabin on an icy mountain.  We learn why no two people describe Helen the same way, and why King Death wants her.  We meet Polyphemus, an innocent shepherd blinded by a stranger.  We enter a world where Agamemnon rules a vast subterranean kingdom mirroring Troy above.  We cross paths with Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.  We meet a golem Achilles.

If you have never heard of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, you can check it out on Amazon.  It's a short book, but best read piecemeal, one or two chapters at a time, to better process the multiple variations on the Odyssey theme.

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The Captain of the Blacks Fresco

Some of the most iconic images from Knossos, such as the Priest-King of the Lilies and the Blue Ladies, continue to mislead lovers of Minoica and distort our modern views of the ancient Minoans.  Sir Arthur Evans, having convinced himself that the Minoans were a peace-loving, matriarchal society of idealists and artists--and having subconsciously done this to escape the atrocities and upset of the Balkan Wars and Great War of the last turn of the century--employed a father-son team of artists both named Emile Gillieron to reconstitute the fresco fragments he found during his excavations to reflect his view of ancient Knossos.

In a much earlier post, I mentioned that the Priest-King fresco was cobbled together from pieces of at least three separate frescoes.  In this post, I examine a fresco which has excited debate among archaeologists and Afrocentrics, and everyone in between: The Captain of the Blacks fresco.

This particular fresco is taken as evidence that black Africans were present and enjoyed positions of military authority at Knossos.

I want to state right now that this blog is no place for racist rhetoric.  Leave any negative comments to yourself.  This post has nothing to do with the racial origins of the Minoans, or racial superiority, or any such nonsense.  I have never looked at either the Minoans or Mycenaeans in terms of their race.

That said, I have no doubt that Minoan Crete, being a crossroads linking Asia, Africa, and Europe, routinely saw black Africans coming from Libya, Nubia, and farther afield.  Even though no physical evidence of negroid-type human remains have been found at Minoan sites (intact Minoan burials are very rare to begin with), black Africans would have come to Crete as other peoples did, as traders, mercenaries, and settlers.  I see no reason why blacks would not have been among the Minoan military elite; the Nubians were great archers, and in later times the Cretans became renowed for their excellent archers.

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It's very possible that the "Captain of the Blacks" fresco depicts black Minoan soldiers under the command of another, but a great deal of the reconstructed fragment is hypothetical.  You have to look closely to see which parts are the actual fresco fragments.  There is evidence for the one black soldier in the surviving piece depicting the thigh and kilt edge, and in the uppermost piece showing a dark neck and back of the head, but the third man, the black man who is just a pair of legs and a kilt, is a complete invention.

The Gillierons did this sort of thing with Evans' consent and complicity; the latter knew perfectly well that a number of the ivory figurines finding their way into American and Canadian museums were frauds, because in his multivolume The Palace of Minos he goes out of his way to talk around the objects' lack of provenance.  He is also known to have visited the workshop where the forgeries were produced; in the 1960s archaeologist Leonard Woolley collected anecdotes of Evans' questionable practices and published them as part of his book about Minoan and Mycenaean archaeology: The Bull of Minos.

In short, Evans had a preconceived notion of the Minoans in general and Knossos in particular.  His father, Sir John Evans, had been disciplined and objective, but the younger Evans tended more toward sentimentality and subjectiveness.  He created in Knossos his vision of a Minoan world that probably never existed.  He created a cult of a great Cretan Mother Goddess to replace the mother he had lost at a very young age, goddess who may or may not have existed as Evans imagined her.

There must have been black Africans at Knossos, just as there were probably Egyptians and Hellenes and Canaanites and Libyans and Babylonians, even though the physical evidence for them living in Crete is scant, indeed.  What we see at Knossos is more the modernist reinterpretation of one man that a reflection of the world the Minoans themselves experienced.

The House of Atreus Makes Death Metal

I've known for a while about Virgin Steele and their metal compilations, The House of Atreus I (1999) and The House of Atreus II (2000), both based on Aeschylus's The Oresteia.  Not knowing much about metal, however, I simply haven't known how to present the material until now.

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I still don't know anything about metal, and though I've listened to some samples from these albums, I'm no judge of how good the music is.  The reviews are mostly positive.  Nevetheless, the cursed House of Atreus is as excellent a subject as any for a metal album.

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If you're interested in reading reviews of these albums or checking out the lyrics, head here.  I'm not sure if these are still in print, but you might be able to score some copies on Amazon or ebay.

Homer and Astronomy

The big news this week is that a group of Greek archaeologists and astrometrologists compared meticulous astronomical observations with a careful reading of Homer to calculate Patroclus's death as occurring at noon on June 6, 1218 B.C.  You can read the full paper here.

Homer describes a solar eclipse taking place during the battle for Patroclus's corpse; this correlates nicely with another calculation: a second solar eclipse in the Ionian Islands eleven years later, on October 30, 1207 B.C.  As the events of the Iliad occur in the ninth year of the war, eleven years later in the autumn would correlate with Odysseus's homecoming to Ithaca and the slaughter of the suitors.

This isn't the first time archaeologists and astronomers have tried to match Homer's descriptions to actual solar events.  I find this sort of thing interesting food for thought, which raises some crucial questions:

These calculations only work if Homer got the other details right.

Was there a warrior called Patroclus who was killed during an eclipse, and for whose corpse there was a fierce battle afterward?

Did the Trojan War happen exactly as Homer described, or is the Iliad a collection of independent traditions/stories woven into a new narrative framework, as Caroline Lawrence's insightful work The War That Killed Achilles suggests?

Was there really a hero called Odysseus who took ten years to get home?

I have no doubt that a solar eclipse during a battle is the sort of thing that bards would remember and pass down through the generations, but the oral tradition is something like a game of Telephone: the end result differs significantly from the original message.  All of the above factors would have to fall into place for the astronomical data to have any overall significance; it's the nature of oral literature that has me pausing to shake my head.

What we're left with is the possibility that Homer is remembering real details from real events, but in order to for this theory to withstand scrutiny there has to be corroborating evidence.  So far, there's no Mycenaean Greek documentation of any of the heros who went to Troy; the Pylos archive never mentions a king Nestor.  There are no records of a king Agamemnon or king Odysseus.  Some Hittite records from this time survive, but the evidence for the troubles that struck Wilusa at the end of the thirteenth century B.C. raises more questions than it answers.

It's a fun theory, nevertheless.

Agamemnon and Chryses

Homer's Iliad opens not with fighting, but with Chryses, priest of Apollo, entering the Greek camp at Troy to beg Agamemnon for the release of his daughter, Chryseis.  The girl, captured by Achilles in a raid, has since become Agamemnon's concubine.  Chryses offers a generous ransom which Agamemnon refuses out of hand.  Worse, the son of Atreus informs that old priest that he prefers Chryseis to his own wife, Clytemnestra, and cruelly adds that he will take Chryseis home with him, where she will grow old performing menial tasks around the palace by day, while serving him in his bed at night.  Agamemnon then has Chryses manhandled and forcibly thrown out of the camp.

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Abusing a priest like this was an absolute no-no in the world of the Iliad.  Agamemnon's brusque refusal of Chryses initiates not only a deadly plague from Apollo, whose priest Chryses is, but the loss of Briseis and dishonoring of Achilles, and, subsequently, all the disaster to come.

So why does Agamemnon respond to the supplicant priest as he does?  Can he truly be that ruthless, single-minded, and foolish, or is there another dimension to his refusal that Homer does not explain?

I believe that Agamemnon is so embittered by the long siege that he has begun to question whether the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, was worth it.  In his mind, if he can't have his daughter back, then no one gets their daughter back.

Homer never mentions the sacrifice of Iphigenia, so this insight into Agamemnon's motivation never makes it into the Iliad, but it provides a bit of logic to what is otherwise an illogical act.

For The Girl With Writer's Block

What to do when Erato, the Muse of epic poetry, has just up and checked out for a Caribbean vacation and left you behind? When you have ideas, but no real gumption to write them down?

Well, nothing.

That's right. Do nothing.

By that, I mean I have had to train myself to not sweat over word counts not reached or stories not told. There's no reason to stress out; this has happened before, and this, too, shall pass. If and when Erato wants to come kick me in the ass, she will.

A lot of you don't realize that writing isn't the only creative endeavor I have. I make money doing dollhouse miniatures. Part of the creativity I might have poured strictly into writing is siphoned into this discipline. Painting a one-inch scale Noah's Ark chest with all those animals takes juice!

Meanwhile, I have this blog. Blogging is still writing, after all, and it's probably through my blog that most of you will encounter my writing for the first time.

I also have my Fake!Orestes Twitter account, where I can exercise some creative humor and share pictures and links to new and interesting things from the world of the Aegean Bronze Age.

Soon I hope to start putting together my costume for this year's Take Back Halloween contest. This year will be inspired, I promise you.

So I'm not exactly doing nothing.

Greek Myth Comix

Greek Myth Comix is a fine purveyor of Trojan War Playing Cards, which you can get through Kickstarter, and teachable yet entertaining copies of The Odyssey. Greek Myth Comix also has a nifty Deaths in the Iliad graphic which you can order as a poster.
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I helped fund the Kickstarter campaign, so I should be getting my Trojan War Playing Cards sometime next month. I'll be sure to share them. Meanwhile, you can still head on over to Kickstarter to order your own set, or order the .pdf version. For a little extra, you can order some great add-ons, like the Trojan War Playset, Trojan War Paper Dolls, and more.

Trojan War: The Podcast

I am fourteen weeks into listening to this amazing weekly podcast, and I can't believe it hasn't occurred to me till now to share it with you.

Trojan War: The Podcast is a project by performer Jeff Wright, who makes a living telling the story of the Trojan War to high school students. His performances being limited to four hours, when his audiences only have the stamina to sit still for two, a lot of great material gets lost. Thus, the idea of a podcast was born.

Aside from relating the tales of the Trojan War cycle, which includes the Iliad and other sources, the podcast includes background information on the Bronze Age Aegean world, the backstories of the mortals and gods, and other material listeners will find fascinating. Jeff has a great voice and lively tone, and keeps the story going. I actually wouldn't mind sitting in on one of his performances. Each episode is a little over an hour long. These days, my Friday evenings consist of Real Time With Bill Maher, VICE, followed by an hour of miniature painting while listening to Trojan War: The Podcast.

On Twitter, Jeff and I have entered into bonds of xenia in which we Like and Retweet each other's posts, so he'll probably be thrilled to read this blog rec.

But don't sit around here listening to me! Head on over to Trojan War: The Podcast and get started!

Serifos

The island of Serifos, where according to myth the hero Perseus spent his childhood, is part of the Cyclades.  Judging strictly from photographs, it isn't much to look at.  No spectacular archaeological ruins like Crete or Santorini, nothing that special.  It's like many other Greek islands: brown, barren hills, windswept scrub, and brilliant blue water.  Not as iconic or evocative a place as, say, Mount Pelion, where Achilles, Patroclus, and Ajax the Great spent their boyhoods under the tutelage of Chiron the centaur.

Serifos today is the product of drought due to climate change, wildfires, and many years of overcultivation and overgrazing.  This same process, called desertification, can be seen throughout the Aegean.  There have been attempts at conservation, but unfortunately the current social and economic problems in Greece limit these efforts.

Was it always this way?  Archeoecological studies show that nearby Crete, also plagued by the effects of desertification, was much greener and more forested in ancient times; the same can probably be said for Serifos and other Cycladic islands.  We know there was a period of drought/climate change around 1200 B.C. that led to widespread unrest in the Aegean and the Near East, but Perseus would have lived 150-200 years before that; the Serifos I depict in Danae might had more vegetation.

Here are images of some of the places I mention in Danae:

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Chora is the island's capital.  It overlooks the island's only harbor at Livadi.  A church and the ruins of a medieval castle occupy the highest ground. Archaeologists have found traces of older ruins on the summit as well, so if a Mycenaean Polydektes existed, his citadel would have been there, too.

There are other ancient ruins on the island, including the remains of four great watchtowers and a sanctuary near Ganema.


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A view fit for a Mycenaean king. A southern view from the Chora acropolis, encompassing Livadi and its great bay toward the island of Sifnos.

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A beach around Livadi. Pelargos is a fictional fishing village, but it is located in this general area, and would have looked very similar.

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The beach at Ganema where Diktys lands his boat after a midnight escape from Pelargos.

Curious about ancient Serifos, or the Perseus myth?  Head on over to Amazon to read Danae on Kindle.  Also available through Smashwords.

Amalia Carosella: By Helen's Hand

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Amalia and I are acquainted through Twitter and other social media. Last summer when I was recovering from gallbladder surgery, I read her Greek mythology debut, Helen of Sparta, and really liked it. She's as much as apologist for Theseus, it seems, as I am for Orestes.

The plot of Helen of Sparta is not the typical Helen story. Helen, of marriageable age, is put on display to attract various wealthy and powerful suitors. Her mother, Leda, has arranged with Agamemnon of Mycenae that Agamemnon's brother Menelaus will have Helen. But when Helen meets Theseus, king of Athens, she has eyes for no one else. Her nightmares predict that if she marries Menelaus, disaster will come in form of a terrible war. So she is a willing participant in her own abduction by Theseus.

02_By Helen"s Hand
The sequel, By Helen's Hand, picks up right where the first book left off. Theseus has followed his best friend Pirithous on a fool's errand to Hades, leaving Helen vulnerable and uncertain if he will ever return to save her from the man she dreads and the future marriage to Menelaus will bring about.

Helen is a very, very, very difficult character to get right. I know from experience. The very best Helen aside from Homer is, I think, that written by the late Colleen McCullough in Song of Troy. Amalia's Helen is unique in that she experiences prophetic nightmares--what notes she and Cassandra could have compared!--and regards Theseus as her savior and ally rather than as traumatic episode in her early life that underscores how inextricably linked sex and violence are in the story of Helen. Amalia's Helen does try to avert disaster with the means at her disposal, but the story lacks somewhat because as readers we all know the Trojan War is inevitable.

It is refreshing to see other characters in the mix: Odysseus, Patroclus, and Polypoetes, a lesser-known suitor of Helen who also happens to be the son of the rakish Pirithous.

What troubled me most was the depiction of Menelaus. As I mentioned above, Menelaus in Homer is not a bad guy. I know, I've written him. Yet he, like Helen, reflects current attitudes. Why would Helen leave her home and daughter, and everything she knows, to run off with Paris unless she's escaping an abusive marriage? Modern-day audiences aren't comfortable with the Olympian gods; they tend to see ancient ideas and mores in a Judeo-Christian light. So they miss the point of Aphrodite's involvement. She's the goddess of love and everything south of the waist, yes, but remember that her lover is the god of war. Sex and violence again. Helen's suitors compete for the right to wed and bed her; the ancients referred to the sheer physical intensity--and occasional brutality--of the marriage contest as agon, from which we get the modern word agony. Not for a moment do I believe that Menelaus would not have been there showing off his prowess and fitness to rule Sparta, even if he was a second-rate warrior whose big brother Agamemnon operated behind the scenes to orchestrate a political alliance between Sparta and Mycenae.

Helen did not leave Menelaus because he wasn't a decent husband or father to their daughter Hermione, but because she was stricken by the love-dart of Eros. Aphrodite pulls the strings.

Homer tells us that Helen tires of pretty-boy Paris and longs to return to Menelaus and home; he never says whether Helen regrets the savagery and loss of the Trojan War as keenly as Menelaus does. In The Odyssey, she's busy dispensing Egyptian-smack-in-a-bottle whenever her husband gets broody.

Amalia's ending is inspired, taking a rather obscure legend about Helen's time in Egypt and making it flesh, yet in some ways it feels like a deus ex machina. I liked By Helen's Hand with some reservations, but then, I am a notoriously nitpicky reader. I will leave readers to decide how well Amalia handles the issues surrounding the Trojan War.



02_By Helen"s Hand

By Helen's Hand (Helen of Sparta #2) by
Amalia Carosella

Publication Date: May 10,
2016
Lake Union Publishing
eBook & Paperback;
Genre: Historical Fiction
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With divine beauty comes dangerous power.



Helen believed she could escape her destiny and save her people from utter
destruction. After defying her family and betraying her intended husband, she
found peace with her beloved Theseus, the king of Athens and son of Poseidon.



But peace did not last long. Cruelly separated from Theseus by the gods, and
uncertain whether he will live or die, Helen is forced to return to Sparta. In
order to avoid marriage to Menelaus, a powerful prince unhinged by desire, Helen
assembles an array of suitors to compete for her hand. As the men circle like
vultures, Helen dreams again of war and of a strange prince, meant to steal her
away. Every step she takes to protect herself and her people seems to bring
destruction nearer. Without Theseus s strength to support her, can Helen thwart 
the gods and stop her nightmare from coming to pass?

Amazon (Kindle) | Amazon (Paperback) | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

03_Amalia Carosella AuthorAbout the Author

Amalia Carosella graduated from the
University of North Dakota with a bachelors degree in Classical Studies and
English. An avid reader and former bookseller, she writes about old heroes and
older gods. She lives with her husband in upstate New York and dreams of the day
she will own goats (and maybe even a horse, too). For more information, visit
her blog at www.amaliacarosella.com. She also writes fantasy and
paranormal romance as Amalia Dillin.



You can also connect with Amalia on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter here and here.




04_By Helen"s Hand_Blog Tour Banner_FINAL
By Helen's Hand

Elizabeth Cook: Achilles

Going through my bookshelves, I stumbled across this little gem of a book I read several years ago. Fans of Achilles talk about Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles, but this is a work that might appeal to them, too.

I hesitate to call it a novel, because it doesn't really follow the structure of your standard novel. It's a series of vignettes that delve into Achilles' psyche and cover key points in life, from the courtship of his parents (if you want to call it that) to the Trojan War to his death, and beyond. There's an odd epilogue involving John Keats, but you should read it through, because Keats is the one who gets Achilles, and who bridges the divide of the long centuries between us and the Trojan War.

Achilles has been called pretentious by some reviewers, but these are the same people who live in glass houses and complain about the slightest usage of four letter words and sex. Judge for yourself. Here is a wonderfully evocative passage from the beginning, when Achilles watches the various spirits in Hades drink from Odysseus's blood offering:



  • The shade of Agamemnon pushes past. A bit too eager. Rein yourself in, you greedy fool. You always liked blood that was shed at no risk to yourself. Still hiding behind your title as King. Everything you had was on account of that. Nothing was earned by your nature. You never saw any of it but the having... Every time you missed the point because the point you wanted to make is 'Agamemnon is glorious.' Easy then for your wife to trick you... She was another one you never saw. Not even when her knife went in and your own blood pumped unstoppably into the bath. Down here it is still 'Agamemnon is glorious,' but now your other chant is, 'Women are treacherous.' You never stopped to think why Clytemnestra wished you dead.



You can purchase Achilles here at Amazon.

Navel-Gazing While High On Lidocaine

The other day, I suffered the discomfort and indignity of having to have a molar pulled. During the long wait, in which I perused the glossy ads at the front end of a Vanity Fair (would Helen of Troy have worn Michael Kors?), I constantly reassured myself that my trip to the dentist could have been a lot worse. If she ever needed a tooth pulled, Helen would have had some kick-ass opium, sure, but very little to counteract the risk of infection. Reminds me of an observation about Eric Shanower's graphic novel series Age of Bronze: Helen and Paris are the only ones with perfect teeth. Of course they are. The Beautiful People in every age are as blessed as they are conceited.

I needed three shots of Lidocaine to deaden my right jaw, one delivered straight under my tooth with horse-sized needle fitted with, my dentist assured me, the finest, most delicate tip available. Whatever you say. My jaw is still sore from that triple-whammy.

So out comes with tooth with a cracking sound I will remember to the grave. As soon as I'm able, I reach forward and pick up the specimen. I'm not squeamish about things like pulp and blood. My DNA is in that tooth, I think. Thousands of years from now some archaeologist could drill into that molar, process the pulp, and recreate my genome. Maybe they could tell me if my maternal ancestors got their Jewishness by way of the Near East or Central Asia; I suspect some of them were Khazars, many of whom resettled in Lithuania and Poland after the Khazar kingdom fell apart a thousand years ago.

I think about ancient remains, too. That skeleton of unknown sex from Anemospilia, crushed in the earthquake that brought down the shrine in 1700 B.C. Drilling a tooth might settle the question of whether the remains are male or female. It might settle, too, the speculation that the young man on the altar might have been the priest's son. We already know the priestess had poor dental hygiene; she was not a woman who brushed or flossed. Not that any of them had great dentistry, but her condition was such that it attracted notice. She would have had an epic case of halitosis while she lived.

I doubt there's money to spend doing DNA research on any remains from Anemospilia or Archanes, and no guarantee, either, that any usable DNA survived the fire that swept through collapsed building and blackened part of the sacrificial victim's bones.

A Woven Band From Tiryns

Pottering around on the Internet again, I found a historical reconstruction site, Historical Living With Hvitr, which features some nifty Minoan and Mycenaean reconstructions. This blogger built her own Mycenaean helmet out of felt and leather, which is so spot-on and deeply cool I'll have to post about it separately, but for now I want to focus on the reconstruction of a woven band seen on the fresco of the Lady of Tiryns.


mycenaeanfresco

Remember how back in 2014 I had 72 hours to pull off a Mycenaean lady for the Take Back Halloween costume contest? And how I nearly went insane gluing white felt dots onto black grosgrain ribbon? I was trying to recreate the trim for the Lady of Tiryns, but ran out of time and sanity. Well, the blogger, Stella Anderson, did this pattern. In a related post, she points out that Bronze Age wool isn't like the merino wool we use today; it's taken a long process of breeding and domestication to get the wools we have today. The result looks as though it would be very heavy and uncomfortable to wear on a garment, but then I have to remember that we modern readers have been spoiled by high thread count, machine-woven fabrics. People in the Bronze Age, even the nobility, would have worn fabrics that were somewhat coarser.

Anderson goes into great detail about the weaving process. I confess, I find technical talk difficult to follow. My admission might shock some of my readers, because my female characters spend a great deal of time working wool. I said I found it difficult, not impossible. I'm the kind of person who needs to experience things hands-on to really grasp the concept. I was lucky enough many years ago to encounter a lady at a local Ren Faire who showed me how to spin wool with a distaff and whirl. So I grasp that. Making my own Mycenaean and Minoan costumes was another experiment in trying to understand how the clothes draped and felt. One day I'd like to try weaving and making my own dye.

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