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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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Hermione

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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.

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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.

Beauty's Daughter by Carolyn Meyer

Beauty's Daughter: The Story of Hermione and Helen of Troy
Beauty's Daughter by Carolyn Meyer
YA readers
2/5 stars

I confess, I was really torn about writing about a review for this book. Since Ms. Meyer announced back in Spring 2012 that she was writing about Hermione and Helen, I have been looking forward to reading it.

I was very disappointed.  Now I am unsure about how to approach the review. Do I write as a fellow author who has written about Hermione and Helen, and risk alienating Ms. Meyer or her many fans? Do I write as an enthusiast of the Late Bronze Age Aegean, which is the setting of the book? Do I write as a former English teacher? I chose to read the book as a lover of the Mycenaean period.  My writing Helen's Daughter had nothing to do with my opinions.

Any novel set in the 13th century B.C. and dealing with the Greek myths is going to pose a problem. There is so much backstory that modern readers probably won't be familiar with, that any author is going to have to break from the action to explain certain things. A bit of an infodump is okay as long as the action and character development don't suffer in the process. Yet I had trouble connecting with Hermione in the first chapters because of the opening infodumps. She did not leap from the page (or Kindle screen, in my case) for me. Nor did any of the other characters. Hermione does too much telling, and not enough showing. This problem persists through the first two parts of the book. Only in the third, covering the post-Trojan War period, where Ms. Meyer had greater freedom to use her imagination in describing Heremione's escape from Phthia, does the narration come alive.

Helen made me shake my head. I suppose the natural inclination of most authors and readers (and filmmakers, too, I guess) is to portray Helen as a vain, selfish, empty-headed sexpot. I admit to being rather tired of that interpretation, though I understand that this might just be how Hermione perceives her mother.

History is full of sluts, but this is the woman whose face is said to have launched a thousand ships. Maybe her abduction was just a pretext for a Mycenaean invasion of Troy, I don't know, but Ms. Meyer's Helen completely lacks the charisma that would make men fight over her. We are told that Aphrodite cast a spell over Helen and Paris (and the entire Spartan citadel, to boot). Does the interference of the gods mean Helen bears no responsibility for her actions? I recall Helen in the Iliad as being much more complicated, alternately seductive, tempestuous, and remorseful. I would have liked to see that Helen here.

Another thing about that mist: it's never explained how Hermione is immune to its effects.

The gods make regular appearances in the novel. In other books like this, I've seen various authors handle the gods in different ways, with varying degrees of success. For the most part, making the gods visible and active doesn't work here, except for Hermes's appearances toward the end. That, I felt, was well done, because he only appears at the periphery of the protagonist's vision. Artemis whisking Iphigenia from the altar was not so effective. In fact, it was poorly done. I can understand Ms. Meyer wanting to spare younger readers the horror of a young girl being sacrificed by her own father, but in doing so the author removed much of Clytemnestra's motivation to later kill Agamemnon.

Perhaps the main problem I had with the book was that I never bought the idea of Hermione being present at Troy. Why would she want to follow Menelaus to Troy after what she just witnessed at Aulis? There's absolutely no way Menelaus or Agamemnon would have risked Hermione's virtue or health by allowing her to stay in the Greek camp. She was, after all, Menelaus and Helen's only remaining child, and heiress to the kingdom of Sparta. She would have been shipped straight back to Mycenae (where, in fact, she actually spent the duration of the war with her aunt Clytemnestra). Yet Menelaus isn't even angry when he discovers her in the camp.

Hermione is very matter-of-fact about life in the camp. We don't see her being afraid of rape, disease, starvation (the Greeks were regularly short of rations, I imagine), or a Trojan raid, in which she herself might end up like Astynome (Chryseis) or Hippodameia (Briseis), and abused. I'm not sure whether Ms. Meyer's editor was hovering over the manuscript with a virtual red pen to censor any objectionable material, but since instances of prostitution and rape do occur, I'm guessing these details were simply neglected.

I've noticed in a few other books that it's become commonplace to make Hermione and Orestes closer in age than the Classical sources state, with Orestes being older. According to Classical playwrights, Hermione was seven years older than Orestes, and he was about two when the Trojan War started, and no older than 12 when Agamemnon was murdered. He never went to Troy. In fact, in the Iliad, Agamemnon tells Odysseus to tell Achilles that he will make Achilles his son-in-law, as dear to him as his young son Orestes, then growing up at Mycenae "in abundant prosperity." Orestes had to wait seven years (presumably until he reached manhood) to take his revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

The murder of that pair and Orestes's pollution felt somewhat whitewashed, at least in terms of the way Hermione reacts. The madness part the author conveys nicely, but the pollution part, not so much. Blood guilt was a very big deal in the ancient world. Hermione shouldn't even be looking at Orestes for fear of being tainted, much less talking to or touching him. I do understand, however, why Ms. Meyer chose not to mention the double curse on Orestes (and Hermione, too) by means of his descent from the House of Atreus. The Atreidai were the ultimate Greek dysfunctional family, and I think the more taboo aspects of the curse would frighten younger readers.

I did appreciate that Ms. Meyer read and incorporated bits and pieces of various Classical plays and the Homeric epics into the novel. I just wish there had been more character development and more detail. I don't know what kind of deadline the author was working under (and I know from her blog posts that she had one), but I feel the book would have benefited from more time and effort.

Readers who are intrigued by Hermione, the Trojan War, and other related topics should check out Adele Geras's novel "Troy," Margaret George's "Helen of Troy," and Eric Shanower's graphic novel series "Age of Bronze."

New Year Updates

First news of the New Year: the first draft of Orestes: The Outcast is finished, at 78,000 words; it is a short book, with The High King, the final book in the trilogy, set to be much longer.  I am now combing through The Outcast, weeding out typos and editing for content.  It should be ready by late January or early February.

November and December were great months for Helen’s Daughter.  Somehow, this book is selling far better than The Young Lion.  Do readers simply prefer novels with female protagonists?  Don’t shy away from the Orestes Trilogy!  Plenty of Mycenaean pageantry, adventure, and intrigue to soak up!

On an end note, some recent cartoons: Orestes and Hermione holiday shopping at IKEA Corinth, and the pair on Christmas morning.  The latter will be a diptych image, with Elektra and Pylades facing.

Note: if your eyes are good, you might be able to make out the Snake Goddess on the tree.





 

Orestes Prepares For The New Year


Orestes is in trouble with Elektra and Hermione over his newly delivered 1249 B.C. nudie calendar. Poor guy can never catch a break.

The Orestes Comic

Some comic artwork I did for my Orestes Twitter account. Hermione clings to Orestes, who gives the thumbs-up as Elektra pursues Pylades in the background.

Note the chariot nuts.

Hermione

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.


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