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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.

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:


Personal Update

I have been working hard on Danae, but have come to a point where I'm mentally and physically exhausted.  Nothing serious; this happens during all my projects, and usually more than once.  I suspect the heat and humidity, and other pressing concerns have all taken their toll.

To those who follow me on Twitter (@oresteshighking), yes, that gallbladder surgery and my humble request for reader support is really a thing.  I've suffered from gallbladder pain for the last 2 1/2 years, but only in the last few months have I had insurance (through Medi-Cal) to get the problem taken care of.  I was initially to have laparoscopic surgery on July 2, but then the surgeon, concerned about the possible benign cavernous hemangioma on my liver, decided I needed an MRI before he cut into me.  I had that MRI this past Monday.  Nice to know I'm not claustrophobic; the machine wasn't even as loud as everybody told me it would be.

I'm waiting for the surgeon's office to call to schedule the procedure.  He's only in on Thursdays, so that complicates matters further.

This puts my job hunt on hold, even though I've been applying throughout.  Trouble with applying for medical billing and coding jobs is that you have to have experience to be hired anywhere, but nobody will hire you so you can get experience.  I've been supplementing my income by painting dollhouse miniatures and selling my books.  From now till 8/1, Knossos is on sale for $.99.  I've sold a few copies this way, but it would be remiss of me to say it's been a great success, because I've also lost revenue this way because the sales aren't in such bulk as to compensate for the dip in price.  This is an experiment in marketing that I might try again with Danae.

I don't know how much progress I'll make on the new book during the recovery period, but since I'm already 3/4 of the way finished with the manuscript, I estimate it should be available early next year.

So if you can, please buy a copy, or purchase Helen's Daughter or the Orestes Trilogy.  I don't want to ask for charity where you, the reader or friend, get nothing in return.  I make my living as an author.  Please help out.  Buy for a friend, or just pass this message on to somebody who might be interested.


A rare image of Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, and protagonist of my novel Helen's Daughter.  In comparison with her infamous beauty of a mother, there are relatively few images of Hermione.  I suppose she isn't as interesting a subject as Helen, but more of a marginal character in Greek legend, which is why I like her.

The protagonist of my next novel is also a marginalized woman from Greek legend: Danae, the mother of Perseus.

Uluburun Diptych

I've been meaning to post about this find for quite some time, but other things keep getting in the way.

Between 1984 and 1994, underwater archaeologists working near Uluburun, Turkey, excavated a marvelously preserved shipwreck from the 14th century B.C.  Among the amphorae and ingots of copper and tin, they found an object no one expected to find: a partially preserved wooden diptych.

This particular diptych, which would have been coated with wax, probably contained a ship's inventory, but it might also have contained a letter, perhaps between merchants, perhaps between local rulers.  The existence of this object and the possibilities it offers suggested the plausibility of the correspondence between Hermione and Orestes in Helen's Daughter.

Frieze From Tiryns

A post with pictures for today: a frieze of spirals from Tiryns.

As you can see, it's been restored; you can make out the original bits of fresco, and the reconstruction that was done around it.

Another friendly reminder: Helen's Daughter is in print.  As for last week's nasty business, I left a private but polite message on that person's Facebook page, but she never answered.  What was really bad was that she down-rated all the other reviews of my book after accusing me of shilling for reviews. Pot, meet kettle.  Ah, well, I wash my hands of the whole affair.

Has anyone bought and/or started reading Knossos? I've had no feedback on this book.  If I sound a little insecure, forgive me.  I took a big hit yesterday when my car needed $700 of servicing.

Helen's Daughter Paperback

For those of you who wanted real, tangible copies of Helen's Daughter over the digital version, this one's for you.

The paperback version is the 2nd edition, all typos and errors cleaned up.  It also includes a map of Mycenaean Greece AND a family tree.  Believe me when I say that Hermione's family tree is way more convoluted than I've depicted.  There are also some nice graphics at the head of each chapter, and it looks very professional.

There's also an excerpt from Knossos at the back.

So go and buy for your keeper shelf.  The price is reasonable at $16.99.

Orestes Needs Love, Too

May has seen an upsurge in the number of sales for Helen's Daughter, which means word of mouth is getting around.  But the same is not true for the first two books of the Orestes Trilogy.  If you liked Helen's Daughter, you might also really enjoy The Young Lion and The Outcast, and The High King, when it is finished early next year.  The trilogy covers more of the period (1263 - 1193 B.C.), features strong women characters, visits more locations, and deals with aspects of Mycenaean life such as hunting, kingship, warfare, and building that Helen's Daughter barely touches on.

Please, check out the trilogy, and spread the word about it, too.  The Young Lion and The Outcast are both available through Amazon Kindle and Smashwords, and the newer version includes a map of Mycenae.

More on Kourotrophoi

Back in June, I mentioned kourotrophoi. These ceramic mother-child figures have turned up at Mycenaean sites all over the Aegean, particularly in children’s graves. Kourotrophoi were not exclusive to the Bronze Age; the practice continued into later times.

The kourotrophos might have represented a divine Mother Goddess and Child, like the Christian Madonna and Child, or it could simply have been a form of sympathetic magic. Mycenaean and Minoan Goddess and Divine Child representations have been found elsewhere, and my next post will be devoted to a very special such artifact.

I mention kourotrophoi in my books. Here is a passage from Helen’s Daughter in which Hermione reflects on childbearing and the talismans that accompany it.

As high priestess in Sparta, I had seen women die in childbirth. Sometimes, they asked for me, to give them my blessings, and perhaps avert disaster by it, but though I held their hands, wiped the sweat from their brows, and said the prayers, they died, anyway.

Opening my eyes, I gazed at the kourotrophos standing on the table nearest the bed. She was very old, crafted in an outmoded Cretan style. Her scarlet and black paint was fading, but she had faithfully watched over the confinements of my foremothers for eleven generations, and had not lost a single woman in childbirth.

Purchase Helen's Daughter on Amazon Kindle or at Smashwords.

Excerpt: Helen's Daughter

Seeing her legendary beauty for the first time with an adult’s eyes, I was not impressed. Helen was dainty and dark-haired like a woman in a fresco, but she was also cool and impenetrable. Why in the world had so many men wasted their lives fighting in her name, or had they even known what they were dying for? I would not have died for her.

Read more...Collapse )

Buy Helen's Daughter at Amazon and Smashwords.



Linear B: Man and Woman

𐀪   𐂁

Linear B ideograms meaning “man” and “woman,” respectively.


As a correction to a statement I made in an earlier post, Linear B does appear to have had some diphthongs, but they are separate signs, and the script still does not represent all the sounds (such as the liquid /l/, /g/, and /h/) that the spoken language must have had.

I am slowly working on Orestes: The Outcast, the second book in the trilogy, but also trying to get the word out there about The Young Lion and Helen’s Daughter.  If you read and liked either book, please pass the word along (and let me know your thoughts, of course!).


Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Sparta, is the heroine of my novel Helen's Daughter.  All that is known about her is that she spent the duration of the Trojan War at Mycenae with her aunt Clytaemnestra, and was later married to both Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, and then to Orestes, to whom she bore a son, Tisamenus.  The reason I have not posted an image of her is because there are none to be found.  Beside her infamous mother and aunt, Hermione is a non-entity, an also-ran.  If she existed--and there is no reason to assume she did not--she must have lived a very quiet life.

There is more than one version of the Hermione-Orestes-Neoptolemus triangle.  In Books 4 and 5 of Homer's Odyssey, the Spartan court celebrates the wedding of Hermione and Neoptolemus; the marriage to Orestes is never mentioned.  Other sources state that Neoptolemus stole Hermione, either from her grandfather's house, or from Orestes himself.  Hermione herself is simply a commodity to be given away, stolen, or reclaimed.  Like their fathers, Orestes and Neoptolemus are reduced to fighting over a woman.

Euripides in his Andromache portrays Hermione and her father Menelaus as spiteful and murderous, plotting against Andromache and her newborn son; Jean Racine took up this thread many centuries later in his Andromaque, with Hermione as a treacherous and capricious cock-tease, goading a lovesick Orestes into murdering Neoptolemus, then changing her mind, rejecting Orestes, and killing herself.

Keep in mind that Euripides was an Athenian playwright working at the height of the Peloponnesian War, and Andromache is a piece of anti-Spartan propaganda.  Later, in his Orestes, he would portray Hermione as a docile creature who ends up a hostage as Orestes puts a knife to her throat while the palace of Sparta burns around them.

Ovid wrote about Hermione in his Heroides (the Heroines), a collection of "letters" written by fourteen heroines from mythology to their absent lovers.  In Epistle VIII, Ovid's Hermione writes to Orestes, urging him to save her from her forced marriage to Neoptolemus.  In these excerpts, Hermione complains that it is the lot of the women in her family to be abducted:

Hermione speaks to one lately her cousin and husband,

now her cousin. The wife has changed her name.

Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, proud, in his father’s image,

holds me imprisoned contrary to piety and justice.

I have refused what I could, so as not be held against my will,

a woman’s hand has not the power to do more....


Deafer than the sea, he dragged me under his roof,

my hair unbound, and I calling on Orestes’s name.

How could I have endured worse, as a slave in a captured Sparta,

if a barbarian horde were to seize a daughter of Greece?

Andromache was less abused by victorious Achaia,

when Greek flames might have burnt the wealth of Troy.

But you, Orestes, if my affectionate care for you moves you,

take possession of me, without cowardice, as is your right!

You’d surely take up arms if someone snatched your cattle

from the closed stable, will you be slower for a captive wife?


Don’t ready a thousand ships with swelling canvas

or hosts of Greek warriors: come yourself!

Yet if I too were won back in this way, it’s no shame for a husband

to have endured fierce war for his dear marriage bed.

Why, since Atreus, Pelop’s son, is our mutual grandfather,

even if you weren’t my husband, you’d still be my cousin.

Husband, I beg you, aid your wife, cousin aid your cousin:

both titles urge you to perform your duty.


I am violated, and my face swells with feeling,

and my inflamed emotions grieve me with hidden fires.

Who has not taunted Orestes in Hermione’s presence:

I have no power, there’s no cruel sword here!

Truly I can weep: I diffuse anger in weeping,

and tears flow like streams over my breast.

I have only these, always, and always I pour them out:

they wet my neglected cheeks, from a perennial fountain.

Surely, by the fate of my race, that tracks us through the years,

the mothers of Tantalus’s line are suited to be prey?



In this epistle, Hermione also reveals her feelings toward her mother:


Why must I complain that a troubled destiny harms me?

My childhood was motherless: father was at the war:

and while both lived, I was bereaved of both.

Not for you, my mother, the charming lispings of those tender years,

spoken by your daughter’s uncertain mouth.

I did not clasp your neck with tiny arms,

or sit, a welcome burden, on your lap.

You didn’t tend my dress, nor on my marriage

did I enter a new marriage bed, prepared by my mother.

When you returned I came out to meet you – I confess the truth –

my mother’s face was not familiar!

Yet I knew you were Helen, as you were the most beautiful:

you yourself asked which child was your daughter.


Such dramatic potential was what drew me to Hermione as a heroine.  There were many places where I had to fill in the blanks, or compromise between contradictory versions, but the result is, I think, a convincing portrait of a Mycenaean noblewoman who has known her share of resentment and love, and has had to fend for herself.

Minoan Flowers

Among other things, Minoan artwork is known for its plethora of floral depictions.  It seems that the Minoans, like their Egyptian contemporaries, loved flowers, and wanted them in their homes; archaeologists have found not only fresco fragments with many species of Aegean and Cretan flowers, but the remains of hanging flower pots.  In fact, several floral species known today, including crocus and narcissus, retain some form of their original Minoan names.

Rather than parrot information from my sources, I am linking my readers to an exhaustive but wonderful article on flowers in ancient Crete.  Andras Zeke, the webmaster, has a marvelous blog on the Minoans, with particular emphasis on Linear A, so stay and peruse the articles.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say hello to several new readers.  My articles here are meant to be nibbles of information from the Mycenaean and Minoan periods, entertaining and informative without being too dry or scholarly.  I use my research to write my novels, and currently have a novel out on Kindle: Helen's Daughter, about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy.  What, you didn't know Helen had children?  Yes, she did!  Head on over to Amazon and Smashwords to sample the novel and find out!

Head of the Goddess

This enigmatic female head was found in the Cult House at Mycenae.  Is she a goddess, or a priestess?  Was the head attached to a wooden cult statue that didn't survive?

The face gives a good three dimensional example, though, of what a Mycenaean priestess might have looked like when painted for a ritual.  In Helen's Daughter, when Hermione refers to putting on the "moon-mask," this is what she's talking about.

Helen's Daughter On Kindle

Helen's Daughter is now available on Amazon Kindle.  This is strictly an e-book release, so there will not be a print option.  However, if you don't have a Kindle, then there are several other electronic formats, such as .pdf, on Smashwords which are available.  I prefer paper, too, but it's simply too expensive, both for me to produce, and you to buy.

Helen's Daughter

Helen's Daughter, the novel I have researched and worked on for a year, is available on Smashwords right now, and will be available through Amazon Kindle by Monday.

When the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen of Sparta, she left behind a nine-year-old daughter, Hermione. And when Helen's husband Menelaus set out to recover her, Hermione was sent to her relatives at Mycenae to wait out the war.

Now, years later, the Trojan War is over. The adult Hermione eagerly awaits her father's return, but remains ambivalent toward her mother, even as her world is once again turned upside-down. Can Hermione survive the trials that await, or will she become another victim of the curse that haunts her family?

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