Greetings readers and history-lovers!
I’m pleased to welcome you to the very first post in this new blog series about the ancient Olympics and Eagles and Dragons Publishing’s newest book, Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics.
Over the next ten weeks or so, we will be looking at all aspects of the Olympic Games from their foundation and religious ceremonies, to ancient athletics, individual sports, and the actual site of ancient Olympia as it relates to the Olympiad of 396 B.C. when Heart of Fire takes place.
In this first post, we are looking at the mythological beginnings of the Olympic Games as given in three traditions.
There are three myths related to the foundation of the Olympic Games, and the first begins with the war between the Gods and the Titans.
Ancient Olympia is dominated by an ancient hill known as the Hill of Kronos. Now, Kronos, a Titan, as we know, was the father of Zeus who, along with his siblings, waged war on Kronos and the Titans.
One of the legends associated with Olympia is that it was where Zeus wrestled with, and defeated, his titanic father. Some believe the games were established to commemorate that victory, and that the site at the base of the Hill of Kronos was where Zeus himself wrestled and defeated Kronos.
Another tradition around the Olympic Games is that they were founded by Herakles in thanks to his father, Zeus, for granting him victory in war.
The great epinikion poet, Pindar, speaks of this in his Olympian Ode #10:
With the help of a god, one man can sharpen another who is born for excellence, and encourage him to tremendous achievement. Without toil only a few have attained joy, a light of life above all labors. The laws of Zeus urge me to sing of that extraordinary contest-place which Heracles founded by the ancient tomb of Pelops with its six altars, after he killed Cteatus, the flawless son of Poseidon and Eurytus too, with a will to exact from the unwilling Augeas, strong and violent, the wages for his menial labor…
…But the brave son of Zeus gathered the entire army and all the spoils together in Pisa and measured out a sacred precinct for his supreme father. He enclosed the Altis all around and marked it off in the open, and he made the encircling area a resting-place for feasting, honoring the stream of the Alpheus along with the twelve ruling gods. And he called it the Hill of Cronus; it had been nameless before, while Oenomaus was king, and it was covered with wet snow. But in this rite of first birth the Fates stood close by, and the one who alone puts genuine truth to the test, Time. Time moved forward and told the clear and precise story, how Heracles divided the gifts of war and sacrificed the finest of them, and how he established the four years’ festival with the first Olympic Games and its victories.
We will hear more about the Theban poet, Pindar, later throughout this blog series. For now, this small part of the ode mentions several things we should note. There is reference to Pelops whose tumulus was located in the middle of the Olympic sanctuary and whose story is big part of Heart of Fire.
Pindar also references one of Herakles’ labours which was to clean out the stables of King Augeas. More importantly, Pindar paints us a picture of the Olympic sanctuary and the Altis, which was marked out by Herakles as a place for rest and feasting at the base of the Hill of Kronos, and where every four years the Olympic festival was held.
At the first Olympics begun by Herakles, it is said that the gods themselves competed, with Apollo defeating Hermes in a foot race, and also defeating Ares, the God of War, in boxing.
But there is another tradition about Herakles…a different Herakles.
There were two Herakles?
Apparently so. The second was not the son of Zeus and Alcmene. He was known as Daktylos Herakles and it seems that the tradition around this second Herakles could be even older.
In the age of Kronos, when Zeus was a baby, Kronos was devouring his children (that’s a whole other story!). To keep the baby Zeus safe, his mother Rhea gave her son into the care of five Daktyloi, daimones whose duty it was to protect Zeus in a cave on Mt. Ida in Crete. To drown out the cries of the baby, the danced wildly and clashed their spears and shields together so that Kronos would not find Zeus.
Supposely, Daktylos Herakles was the leader of the five Daktyloi, who established the Olympic Games in the age of Kronos (Cronus). One of the oldest Olympic events, as we shall see in a later post, was the hoplite race in armour, and this aligns with the use of spears and shields by the five Daktyloi who were often pictured as armoured youths.
Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, touches on the Daktyloi here:
As for the Olympic Games, the most learned antiquarians of Elis say that Kronos was the first king of heaven, and that in his honour a temple was built in Olympia by the man of that age, who were named the Golden Race. When Zeus was born, Rhea entrusted the guardianship of her son to the Daktyloi of Ida, who are the same as those called Kouretes (Curetes). They came from Kretan (Cretan) Ida–Herakles (Heracles), Paionaios (Paeonaeus), Epimedes, Iasios and Idas. Herakles being the eldest, matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been introduced into Greece by Herakles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of Boreas . . . Herakles of Ida, therefore, has the reputation of being the first to have held, on the occasion I mentioned, the games, and to have called them Oympiakos (the Olympics). So he established the custom of holding them every fifth year, because he and his brothers were five in number.
Now some say that Zeus wrestled here with Kronos himself for the throne, while others say that he held the games in honour of his victory over Kronos. The record of victors include Apollon, who outran Hermes and beat Ares at boxing . . .
(Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 7. 6 – 10)
Over time, the association of Daktylos Herakles with the Games became merged with the more famous Herakles, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, whose Twelve Labours were illustrated on the frieze of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
So much for Daktylos Herakles.
There is a final myth associated with the foundation of the Olympic Games, and that is the legendary chariot race between Oinomaus, son of Ares, king of Pisa and father of Hippodameia, and the hero, Pelops, after whom the Peloponnese is named.
King Oinomaus was supposedly a cruel ‘wine-loving’ man and father who continuously slew all the suitors for his daughter Hippodameia’s hand in a chariot race from Olympia to Argos.
When Pelops, a prince from Lydia arrived to take up the challenge with the aid of some divine horses given him by Poseidon, Oinomaus’ reign of terror came to an end, and Pelops and Hippodameia were married.
Now I have really simplified the story here because we will look at it more closely in a later post. However, this particular foundation myth points to the Games as an event to commemorate Pelops’ victory.
In tandem with the Olympic Games, said to be established by Pelops in this instance, Hippodameia was said to have established the Games of Hera, the Heraia, in thanks to the goddess for granting the victory as well. You can read more about the Heraia HERE.
The chariot race was the marquee event at the Olympic Games, and central to the story of Heart of Fire, as is the tale of Pelops and Hippodameia.
There was much testament to this particular foundation myth around the Altis of Olympia as well. One of the pediments from the temple of Zeus shows Oinomaus and Pelops with their chariots, on either side of Zeus, getting ready to race.
Also, in the hippodrome, the chariot racing track of Olympia, a statue of Hippodameia overlooked the track, one of the turns called the Taraxippos, was said to be haunted by the angry ghost of Oinomaus, and one of the posts in the turns was said to be made from a beam from Oinomaus’ burnt house.
In the middle of the Altis there was also the Pelopion, the burial mound of Pelops which became a shrine to the hero who would become the father of Atreus, and grandfather of Agamemnon and Menelaus, those well-known kings of Mycenae and Sparta.
I know this is a lot of information to take in, but it just goes to show the complexity and richness of the traditions attached to Olympia and the mythological foundation of the Olympic Games.
As we explore this ancient event, we will be travelling through a world where myth, religion, history and sport are all melded together to give us one of the greatest legacies passed down to us from Ancient Greece.
I hope you will join me next week for Part II of The World of Heart of Fire.
Thank you for reading.
When history-lovers hear the name of Olympia, the first thing that comes to mind is the Olympic Games. As the birthplace of the Games, the sacred sanctuary near the confluence of the Alpheios and Kladeos rivers holds a special place in our hearts.
Olympia is a place of legend.
I’ve just finished another draft of my upcoming book, Heart of Fire: A Novel of the Ancient Olympics, and so, I’m currently immersed in the ancient Olympiad and the legends that surround its origins.
My mind is a maelstrom of chariot races, boxing, running, religious ceremony, and cries of victory and defeat – and I love it!
Recently, the Olympic flame was lit once more at ancient Olympia before the lovely ruins of the temple of Hera.
In the coming months, men and women who have struggled for years to perfect their abilities so that they peak at the right moment, will compete in this ancient tradition.
However, things were different in the original Olympiad. The ancient Olympics were closed to women as competitors and spectators, except when it came to the owning and training of horse teams.
During the Olympic Games women were not allowed to set foot within the sanctuary to watch their teams compete. An exception to this was the priestess of Demeter Chamayne, who had her own seat of honour at the Games.
However, there was a time when women were permitted within the sanctuary at Olympia, as competitors and spectators.
In the sanctuary of Olympia, not far from the Temple of Zeus, there stands the Temple of Hera, Queen of the Gods and also the goddess to whom another ancient competition was dedicated: The Heraean Games.
The ancient Heraean Games, or the Heraia, were the first official games for women’s athletic competition to be held in the stadium at Olympia. Here is Pausanias’ description of the Heraia, from his perspective in the second century A.D.:
Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women, and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way:
their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the presidents of the games, married women.
The games of the maidens too are traced back to ancient times; they say that, out of gratitude to Hera for her marriage with Pelops, Hippodameia assembled the Sixteen Women, and with them inaugurated the Heraea.
(Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.16 2-4)
The Heraia were certainly a religious ritual, and the foundation myth indicates that the event was originally a ritual of thanks to the goddess Hera.
This myth is central to Heart of Fire’s story, but I will post more about that in the coming weeks. The short of it is that Pelops (after whom the Peloponnese is named) was victorious in a legendary chariot race against Hippodameia’s cruel father, Oinomaus. In thanks to the goddess Hera, Hippodameia held the first Heraia, and the rest is history.
Girls in ancient Greece, with the exception of Spartans, were not encouraged to be athletic. It was frowned upon. But the Heraia continued to gain in popularity and some historians wonder if this was an indication of changing social views and a less restricted life for women. One theory is that this is partly due to the increasing influence of Rome.
In Rome, girls from well-to-do families could participate in men’s festivals. The Capitoline Games in Rome in the second half of the 1st century A.D. included women’s races.
So, this year as you enjoy the build-up to, and watch, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, be sure to remember ancient Olympia, the Heraean Games, and the unsung heroes whom Nike crowned with olive.
Remember the ancient female athletes who were the forerunners of modern female Olympians. They likely would have been awed by what they had begun.
Heart of Fire will be coming in late June, if the Gods smile on it, but before the release, I’ll begin posting a ten-blog series on the ancient Olympics.
See you in the stadium!
Thank you for reading.
If you are interested, below is the full video of the 2016 Olympic torch lighting ceremony which took place last week at ancient Olympia, outside the temple of Hera.
I have something very interesting for you this week.
When most of us hear the word ‘pyramid’, we immediately think of Egypt, of the soaring structures that make up the Giza Pyramid Complex, the pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre, and of course of Khufu, the Great Pyramid of Giza.
These structures have fascinated people for millennia, and not just modern tourists. The pyramids at Giza were a highlight on that famous Hellenistic tourist route we call The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Giza pyramids are actually the last on the list that are still standing!
But we are not here to discuss Giza or Egypt. Nor are we here to discuss the pyramids of Mesoamerica, those Aztec and Mayan wonders that rise up out of the jungles and plains.
Today I wanted to take a brief look at the pyramids of ancient Greece.
That’s right. Pyramids. In Greece.
I don’t know why, but the existence of these only just came to my attention. I had never heard them discussed before, nor seen them in any guidebooks. On one of the ancient history Facebook groups I frequent, someone shared a conspiracy-like video about these.
Now, the video quality was not great, the theories a bit dodgy, but the whole idea of pyramids in Greece piqued my curiosity. So, I did a little digging.
And I found very little.
All of my archaeology and history textbooks make no mention of pyramids in ancient Greece, and most of the websites that mention them were more the sort of New Age pyramid theory sites that you should always take with a grain of salt.
However, from the little I was able to find, it seems like there were pyramids in ancient Greece, theoretically about 16, though for most there are no remains, and some may be natural features.
Surprisingly, the one that is best-preserved is near Argos! Now, if you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that the Argolid peninsula is the region I frequent most when I go to Greece, so I was shocked when I found out about this.
I was able to get a bit more information from Pausanias, who wrote about these pyramids in his description of Greece in the second century A.D.
On the way from Argos to Epidauria there is on the right a building made very like a pyramid, and on it in relief are wrought shields of the Argive shape. Here took place a fight for the throne between Proetus and Acrisius; the contest, they say, ended in a draw, and a reconciliation resulted afterwards, as neither could gain a decisive victory. The story is that they and their hosts were armed with shields, which were first used in this battle. For those that fell on either side was built here a common tomb, as they were fellow citizens and kinsmen. (Pausanias; Description of Greece 2.25)
So, according to Pausanias, who wrote many hundreds of years later, this pyramid was believed to be a tomb or monument to the fallen Argive soldiers in the opposing armies of Proetus and Acrisius. We’ve seen in other cultures that pyramids have been used as tombs, such as Egypt and even Rome, so that is consistent.
Now, Proetus and Acrisius were brothers, sons of Abas and Aglaea, and mythical kings of Argos. Proetus was king first but after many battles with Acrisius, and subsequent losses, went into exile. Acrisius became King of Argos, and this is the same Acrisius who banished his own daughter, Danae, to the sea, along with her infant son – you guessed it! – Perseus.
I managed to find a theoretical list of the pyramids in Greece, and it seems that many of them are located in the Argolid. They are the Pyramids of Hellinikon, of Kampia, of New Epidaurus, of Ancient Epidaurus, of Ligourio, of Dalamanara, of Nafplion, two at Fichthia and Mycenae, and the pyramid of Neapolis.
I have my doubts about this list, and was not able to find any information on most of these. Ligourio came up, and I have indeed driven through that village many times, and stopped at the Mycenaean bridge that is near there.
However, the one pyramid whose remains are the most intact, and for which there is the most information, is the Pyramid of Hellinikon near Argos. It is believed that this is the pyramid referred to by Pausanias above.
In truth, nobody is really certain of the age of this pyramid, or the one at Ligourio. There is no exact date for the battle between the legendary kings of Argos, Proetus and Acrisius. Another battle mentioned in the sources, in which a large number of Argive soldiers died, apparently took place in c.669 B.C.
It seems that as far as history and sources, the evidence is pretty thin. This is when archaeology and dating can help us, or, in this case perhaps, hinder us.
From what I’ve read, the dating of the Hellinikon pyramid is highly controversial. On the one side we have the legend mentioned by Pausanias. Then, in 1937, excavations were undertaken by the American School at Athens in which they found pottery ranging from the proto-Helladic period to the Roman period. This shows the site was in use for some time, but what about dating?
There is a method of dating called thermoluminescence dating, and this was carried out on the pyramid of Hellinikon. Without going into too much detail about this, this method of dating measures the accumulated radiation in objects or sediment. Click here to read more about the methodology behind thermoluminescence dating.
The team that carried this out, in addition to geophysical surveys, excavations, and a study of the masonry of the pyramid, dates the Hellinikon to the period of about 2000-2500 B.C.
That’s also about contemporary with the pyramids on the Giza plateau.
But this dating method has been highly criticized as inaccurate and sloppy, with one camp of academics taking shots at the group that undertook the study of the pyramid. Other groups believe the style of masonry sets the Hellinikon pyramid in the Classical period.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. I’d be curious to read an impartial study of the Hellinikon and other pyramids of the Argolid and ancient Greece.
That’s the funny thing about pyramids… You either have groups whose goal is to prove their existence in relation to something else, like extraterrestrial life, or other groups whose sole purpose seems to be to disprove the work of the previous groups.
The fact is though, that the Hellinikon pyramid exists and is a unique and fascinating structure in an ancient landscape.
Was it a war memorial? Was it a tomb? Was it a guard house with a small garrison of Argive soldiers? Or was it a landing beacon for the ships of little green men?
The confusion and disagreement around these structures doesn’t negate the fact of their existence. They may not be as flashy as the pyramids of the Aztecs, or as gloriously huge as those in Egypt, but they are indeed fascinating.
When it comes to ancient mysteries like these, personally, I find it sad when individuals try to ‘explain away’ such things.
In no way am I suggesting alien linkages – though I have spoken with people who claim to have seen UFOs in the sky when they were attending a night performance at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus – but the ancient Greeks did have close trading ties with the Egyptians.
These sorts of finds are gold for writers. After all, I’ve always found it more interesting to explore possibilities than to disprove theories, and fiction is the perfect medium for that!
Thank you for reading.
It’s been a while since I last posted in the Ancient Everyday series.
Last year we looked at the ritual of going to the public baths, the interesting experience of using a public toilet, and the use of mirrors in the ancient world.
Today, we’re going to take a very brief look at childbirth in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Now, as a man, my input and views on childbirth are somewhat limited, so I would invite my female readers out there to jump in with their comments at any time. I’m a father, and I’ve been present at the birth of my own children, but I would never presume to fully comprehend mysteries, and agonies, that women go through when it comes to bringing a tiny human into the world.
Let’s face it, we’re extremely lucky today as far as obstetrics and the technologies we have to help mothers and children safely navigate the process of pregnancy and birth.
That was not the case in the ancient world. Pregnancy and birth were risky affairs, and as with many aspects of life, the ancients called on specific gods and goddesses for help when it came to childbearing and birth.
The Egyptians offered prayers to the god Bes, a god of marriage and jollity, but also a protector of women and children in childbirth. Bes was not your typical Egyptian god. He is portrayed as an ugly dwarf with a feather crown, sometimes holding a tambourine.
His consort, Tauert, was also prayed to as someone who assisted all females, regardless of station, in childbirth. Tauert was portrayed as a pregnant, female hippopotamus.
In ancient Greece the goddess two whom prayers and offerings were made was Artemis, under her two epithets Kourotrophos (nurse) and Locheia (helper in childbirth).
Now it might seem odd that people prayed to the virgin goddess for protection in childbirth, but in myth, Artemis was said to have been present when Leto, her mother, gave birth to Apollo on Delos. She was considered, in some ways, the first midwife.
It is interesting to note ancient Greeks believed that women who died suddenly in childbirth were helped to a painless death by Artemis who showed them mercy by piercing them with one of her arrows.
The ancient Greeks also prayed to Hecate as a goddess of women and nurturer of children, as well as Hera, the Queen of the Gods who sometimes served as a goddess of childbirth in her capacity as goddess of marriage.
The Romans had many gods and goddesses to whom they prayed for help, and Juno, Queen of the Gods, was first and foremost under the epithets of Lucina, and Opigena.
Another goddess with a major role to play was Carmentis, a water goddess who was also a prophetic goddess of protection in childbirth. Carmentis had her own festival, the Carmentalia, and a temple on the Capitoline Hill.
A third goddess whom the Romans prayed to for a safe and successful childbirth was Matuta, the goddess of dawn and young growth.
It must have been a comfort to have so many gods to pray to, but that may also be indicative of the high risks involved.
Because it was so dangerous to bring a child into the world, and because families could not always afford to feed or provide dowries for all their children, contraception was something that was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Most of the methods used seem to be herb and plant-based, and included things like acacia, honey, Queen Anne’s Lace, date palm, willow, Artemisia, myrrh, and the now extinct silphium plant, among others. Some of these are apparently used in spermicides today.
The Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from c. 1850 B.C. actually contains a lot of information on birth control and is the oldest known gynaecological treatise.
But we are talking about having children in the ancient world. Today, most husbands (I would hope) are in the room to support their wives and be there when their child are born. It happens at the hospital or birthing centre (most of the time), and there is a doctor/obstetrician to help the delivery.
In the ancient world, births took place at home. There were no hospitals, except for those at healing centres like Kos and Epidaurus, and oftentimes, anyone who had been ‘in touch’ with childbirth was not permitted to enter sacred sanctuaries anyway for fear of contaminating the place.
In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, midwifes were a constant. Today, midwifery seems to have made a big comeback, but in the ancient world, the midwife was always the one who helped women through childbirth. Their skills and knowledge were considerable. The only time a doctor might have been called in ancient Greece and Rome was if there were complications.
It appears that in most cases, no men were present at the birth of a child, though there were often several people in attendance, including the midwife, the women of the household (mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc.), and any female slaves that were needed to help.
It was not considered proper for men to be present, and the only man who might have been there was the doctor if he was called.
What about the position for giving birth?
Well, in Egypt, it seems that women often knelt in a shaded spot or shelter to give birth.
With modern hospital beds, women are in more of a lying-down position, with their backs propped up to give birth.
Interestingly, in ancient Greece and Rome, and in later centuries, birthing chairs were used. This was basically a wooden chair with arms, but no seat.
The midwife would kneel on the floor before the chair and help the woman from there, her hands wrapped in linen or papyrus so that the baby did not slip when she caught it.
It may be that couches were also used for giving birth, but I do wonder if midwives in ancient Greece or Rome might have had birthing chairs as part of their professional kit.
Mortality rates for women and children in pregnancy and childbirth were high in the ancient world, and from the little that I’ve read, the risk of death was extremely high in ancient Egypt. Many women died in pregnancy and childbirth, and infants who were born often did not survive the first few months.
Once a child was born, there was usually a ceremony for the naming and blessing of the child.
I could not find information on the specifics of an Egyptian ceremony (Egyptology is not my area of expertise), but I have read that water and ritual washing may have been a part of such a ceremony for newborns since water played a large part in Egyptian religious rituals. Perhaps my Egyptologist friends out there can shed some light on this subject?
In ancient Greece, on the fifth or seventh day after a child was born, there was a purification ceremony and feast called the amphidromia, at which the child received its name. This involved a ritual and an evening feast to which guests brought presents for the child. If a boy was born, the house was decorated on the outside with olive branches. If it was a girl, the outer decoration consisted of garlands of wool.
In ancient Rome, the naming ceremony was called a lustratio, and this took place nine days after the birth of the child. At this, offerings were made to the gods, there was a feast, and the child was introduced to guests.
In chapter twenty-one of my book, Killing the Hydra, I write about a Roman lustratio.
Most people today cannot view the successful birth of a child with anything but gladness. And rightly so! It’s a beautiful thing, and most parents are happy when their child is born healthy, no matter if it is a boy or a girl.
However, in the ancient world, views of family and children could be quite different from our own.
It seems that ancient Egyptians were devoted to their families and that they loved their children. This can be seen in the many images that survive of happy families, babies in their mothers’ arms, and children playing.
In ancient Greece and Rome, children were meant to be less visible, and stayed inside with the women. At birth, a Greek father or guardian decided whether to keep a child. In Rome as well, the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his family members, and this included newborn infants whom the father could deny the right to be reared.
Children could be exposed or killed in ancient Greece and Rome, and had no place in public life.
Practices also differed by place. For instance, in ancient Athens, if a child was kept, it was swaddled, whereas in Sparta children were not swaddled at all, presumably to start toughening them up, or cull the weak.
It certainly seems harsh to our modern sensibilities, but the truth is that if a child managed to survive birth, decisions about their usefulness and whether to keep them were more often based on the sex, the number of children the family already had, ability to provide for that child, the future need for a dowry, and general health.
It’s odd, but most of the time, I tend to think that the past was much more exciting and interesting, more beautiful than our chaotic, modern society. I think most historians feel they were born in the wrong age!
But when I read about things like pregnancy, health, childbirth, and children in the ancient world, it makes me grateful we live in the age we do.
It’s not perfect by any stretch, but as far as childbirth, I would give that part of the ancient everyday a miss.
And let’s not think that all children in ancient Greece and Rome were treated badly. It is my hope that, despite the social mores of those sometimes harsher societies, Nature instilled in the mother and father of most children a love and need to care for their offspring that is timeless and powerful.
As ever, thanks for reading!
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This week, I’m pleased to welcome author Glyn Iliffe back on Writing the Past.
It’s been a couple of years since I interviewed Glyn on the old website around the time of the release of the fourth book in his series, The Adventures of Odysseus.
This time, Glyn is back with a special guest post that I know you will find fascinating!
He has just released book five, The Voyage of Odysseus, which I am reading right now and cannot put down.
Homer’s Odyssey is one of the foundational works of western literature, and the story of Odysseus’ journey back home after the Trojan War is one that has fascinated people for ages.
One of the terrifying elements of this story is the hero’s journey into Hades, and that is what Glyn is going to talk about today.
Katabasis – The Descent into Hell
By Glyn Iliffe
According to Benjamin Franklin only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. The latter we can grumble about and try to dodge, but death is a different question. You might say it’s the question. Being aware of the finite nature of our existence is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, essentially, makes us human. Death – and what lies beyond it – is the great unknown. The anticipation or fear of it has shaped every culture across the world and throughout time.
To understand the psychology of a culture you need look no further than its art, and a lot of art focuses on death. Enter any Catholic church and you will see depictions of Jesus on the Cross. The tombs of the ancient Egyptians are filled with hieroglyphs illustrating the journey into the afterlife. Indeed, the reason we know so much about our ancestors is because of their obsessions with death, culminating in the desire to take their treasures with them into the next world, or leave monuments to the lives they led before death took them. But the clearest insights into a culture’s views on death come from its stories.
In particular, there is one type of story that appears again and again in the texts of different civilizations from different eras: the descent into Hell. I’m thinking here of a physical journey to the underworld, rather than a symbolic or psychological descent into madness or suffering. Possibly the earliest is Gilgamesh’s visit to Utnapishtim. The Egyptians had the Book of the Dead. The Roman poet Virgil told of Aeneas’s visit to his death father, Anchises; and in the Renaissance Dante’s Divine Comedy describes one of the most memorable and terrifying visions of Hell ever depicted. The most defining katabasis of all, for Western culture, was that of Jesus Christ, who spent three days in Hell after taking mankind’s sins onto himself on the Cross.
The term katabasis comes from the Greek words κατὰ ‘down’ and βαίνω ‘go’, and it is the Greeks we must thank for the most numerous and vivid myths on the subject. In the case of Orpheus, the greatest of all poets and musicians, the journey was undertaken for love. When his wife died after being bitten by a viper, he descended into the Underworld and so charmed Hades and Persephone – King and Queen of the Dead – with his music that they agreed to release her back to him. There was one condition, though: that Orpheus walked ahead of his wife and did not look at her until they had both reached the world of the living. In his anxiety after reaching the upper world, he turned to look at her before she had crossed the threshold of Hades. She disappeared in an instant, and this time it was forever.
A less tragic visitation was made by Heracles, the greatest of all Greek heroes. As a penance for slaying his own family in an episode of madness (induced by the gods, of course), Heracles was forced to serve his weakling cousin, King Eurystheus, for twelve years. Eurystheus set him several labours, the twelfth of which was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell. Hades agreed to let Heracles attempt the feat, but only if he fought without weapons. Despite the fearsome nature of the beast, Heracles succeeded and carried Cerberus back to his cousin. Eurystheus was so frightened he agreed to set no more labours if Heracles would take the hound back!
The most famous katabasis features in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus descends into the Underworld to seek the ghost of Teiresias, who will tell him how to find his way home to Ithaca. There he encounters his dead mother and many of the heroes who died during the Trojan War. Chief among them is Achilles, who in life had been the greatest of all the Greek warriors and covered himself in martial glory. But in Hades he is a mournful phantom, scornful of what he had achieved on the battlefield:
‘…We Argives honoured you as though you were a god: and now, down here, you have great power among the dead. Do not grieve at your death, Achilles.’
‘And do no make light of death, illustrious Odysseus’ he replied, ‘I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.’
Odysseus comes away from the Underworld without learning the way back home, which makes the reason for his visit to such a bleak and terrifying place seem pointless. But was it pointless? Indeed, why do some heroes have to descend to Hades? What’s the meaning underlying these myths?
Though later Greeks softened their ideas, in the Bronze Age they believed one thing: that death was followed by an eternity of misery and regret in Hades, relieved only by forgetfulness. Knowing this, many sought the one form of immortality available to them – a reputation that would be honoured from generation to generation. This could only be achieved in battle, by defeating enemies and accumulating honour. This is the driving force for many of the characters in my own novels about the Trojan War.
The katabasis, though, is about symbolic immortality. Importantly, the hero does not reach Hell by the usual route (death). Instead, he seeks to enter the Underworld as a mortal, fulfilling a quest that requires him to take or retrieve something of great worth, such as an object, a person or a piece of knowledge. Interestingly, Odysseus does not return with the knowledge he went in search of, but emerges with something of possibly greater worth: an understanding of the value of life. By achieving his quest the hero proves himself to be exceptional, and by overcoming a figurative death he also becomes more than just mortal. He is reborn into a new life, similar to the Christian baptism ceremony, where the lowering into and rising up again from water is symbolic of death and rebirth.
Such deep themes have inspired many modern retellings of the katabasis. Though the themes are no longer Greek, such stories are still reflective of their own times. Wilfred Owen was an officer in the Manchester Regiment during the Great War. His poetry is full of hell-like visions from the mud and slaughter of trench warfare, but in Strange Meeting there are clear parallels with Odysseus’s descent into Hades:
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
The speaker, like Odysseus with Achilles, tries to comfort the dead man; but like Achilles, the unhappy spirit will have none of it:
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The twist comes at the end, where the dead man informs the speaker ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. Though only a glimpse of a descent into Hell, and one from which we don’t know whether the “hero” returns, Owen nevertheless plays on Homer’s suggestion that death is hollow and empty, and that any kind of life is rich by comparison.
A more recent katabasis appears in Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, in which Lyra enters the Land of the Dead to rescue her best friend, Roger, who has been murdered. This already has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, but there are also other allusions to Greek mythology in the Harpies that patrol this terrible underworld, as well as the phantom-like figures of the dead that populate it. But there are heavy Christian references, too. Like Christ, Lyra leads the lost souls to a form of redemption. Through Lyra’s katabasis Pullman tries to offer an atheistic view of what lies beyond death – very different from traditional descents into Hell – but ironically still relies very heavily on Christian beliefs about redemption.
In The Voyage of Odysseus I retell the story of Odysseus’s long and arduous journey home to Ithaca. The previous books in the series have attempted to draw the full story of the Trojan War into one narrative, focussed on Odysseus. As a fan of Greek mythology, it has always been my intention to be faithful to the original myths and make them accessible, regardless of what the reader may or may not already know about the story. And yet it will always be my take. This is particularly true of the scene in which Odysseus enters the Underworld.
I have had a fear of Hell since childhood. This was probably instigated by seeing Hieronymus Bosch paintings, and reinforced in my teenage years by Dennis Wheatley novels. The notion that Hell is not merely a place of suffering, but a place where the relief of light, love and peace do not exist, is even more frightening. I have incorporated these fears in my retelling of Odysseus’s katabasis – as well as my terror of enclosed spaces!
Glyn Iliffe studied English and Classics at Reading University, where he developed a passion for the stories of ancient Greek mythology. Well travelled, Glyn has visited nearly forty countries, trekked in the Himalayas, spent six weeks hitchhiking across North America and had his collarbone broken by a bull in Pamplona. He is married with two daughters and lives in Leicestershire. He is currently working on the concluding book in the series.
Be sure to check out The Adventures of Odysseus books at any of the following outlets:
I’d like to thank Glyn for taking the time to write such an interesting piece for us. I know that whenever I read or write about a character’s descent into Hell or the Underworld, I will be doing so through a new lens.
If you haven’t already read Glyn’s work, I highly recommend The Adventures of Odysseus books. It is definitely one of the best historical fantasy series out there, and despite these being very old stories and characters, Glyn manages to give them new life. Trust me on this one, folks!
For my Eagles and Dragons Newsletter subscribers, Glyn and I have got a special treat which I will be notifying you about shortly by e-mail, so stay tuned for that.
As ever, do be sure to leave your questions or comments for Glyn or myself in the comments section below.
Thank you for reading!
I think I’m feeling that deep-winter urge to travel again.
I’m thinking of warmer climes, of faraway lands, and the sanctuary that ancient places provide in contrast to the chaos of a big city.
Today, I’d like to take a brief look at a site that may be known to some of you, but which often falls off of the tourist radar – Ancient Nemea.
If you’ve heard of Nemea, it’s probably in relation to the first labour of Herakles in which the hero defeated the Nemean Lion.
Nemea was, of course, also the site of one of the four ‘Crown Games’ of the ancient world, the other three being the Isthmian Games (at Isthmia, near Corinth), the Pythian Games (at Delphi), and the greatest of the four games, the Olympic Games (at Olympia).
But the Nemean Games were not started in honour of Herakles’ great labour.
In legend, the Nemean Games are related to the ‘Seven Against Thebes’, the group of warriors who went with Polynices to take back Thebes from his brother, Eteocles. On their way to Thebes, the Seven stopped in Nemea where King Lykourgos ruled with his queen, Eurydike.
The king and queen had a newborn son named Opheltes, whom they were told by the Oracle at Delphi that they could not let touch the ground until he could walk.
However, one day, the baby’s nurse, Hypsipyle, was walking with the baby when the Seven stopped in Nemea. The Seven asked where the nearest well was, and so Hypsipyle put the baby Opheltes on a bed of wild celery while she took the generals to the well.
The baby was set upon the ground in contradiction of the Oracle of Delphi’s warning, and so a snake came along and killed the baby Opheltes.
The Seven saw this as a bad omen and sought to honour the soul of the slain child, and propitiate the Gods by holding funeral games on site.
Thus were the Nemean Games born.
Ancient Nemea is located in one of the most beautiful regions of the Peloponnese, a region pulsing with myth and legend. Tall mountains rise up above fertile plains filled with olive and orange groves, and miles and miles of grape vines.
The site itself is located to the north of Argos and Mycenae, and is much smaller than Delphi or Olympia, but no less interesting or beautiful.
The first historical games at Nemea were held in 573 B.C., and they took place every two years. There was no settlement at Nemea, and the games were most often under the auspices of Argos, moving to that ancient city to the south for long stretches of time, except during the period of Macedonian hegemony.
The sanctuary at Nemea was important in the ancient world, but somehow experienced more neglect than others when the Games were moved to Argos:
In Nemea there is a temple of Zeus Nemeios worth visiting, although the roof has collapsed and there is no longer any statue. Around the temple is a sacred cypress grove. Here was Opheltes, put on the grass by his wet-nurse, killed by the snake, according to the story. The inhabitants of Argos sacrifice to Zeus also in Nemea and choose a priest of Zeus Nemeios. They organize a running contest for men in armour at the festival of the Winter Nemea. So there is the grave of Opheltes, with a stone enclosure around it and inside the enclosure altars. There is also a tumulus as a monument for Lykourgos, the father of Opheltes. (Pausanias II 15, 2-3)
Pausanias, in his second century A.D. tour of Greece, describes the run-down ruins of the site during the Roman period.
I’ve only been to ancient Nemea once, but I still remember it quite well. The drive there was supremely pleasant, the cypress and plane-tree-lined roads winding among miles of vineyards that seemed somehow reminiscent of Tuscany’s Chiantigiana.
But this is Greece, and the difference is the sense of antiquity and legend that permeates the very air, the light, the landscape.
We pulled into the small parking lot, one of only a handful of cars, and entered through the small site-museum where we were met by a bust of none other than Julia Domna, the Roman empress of Septimius Severus, about whom I’ve written quite a bit.
Some people may say that the museum and the archaeological site are a bit of a let-down compared with Olympia, but I would say that this place is of utmost importance. A lot of archaeological work has been done here to improve our knowledge of Nemea’s importance and the importance of athletics in the ancient world.
There have been excavations on and off here since 1884, but the bulk of the work has been carried out by the University of California at Berkeley since 1974, and that important work is ongoing.
There are two parts to the Nemea archaeological park – the Sanctuary of Zeus, and the Stadium.
We started in the sanctuary where one is drawn to the ruins of the temple of Zeus which was built c.330 B.C.
There is a wonderful, if small ruin that contains the remains of a sunken crypt accessed through the cella, or inner chamber. It is believed the crypt was either used as the site of an oracle, or as a treasury for the sanctuary.
On the east side of the temple is a feature that is unique to Nemea, and Isthmia (an altar to Poseidon), and that is a very long altar to Zeus where athletes and trainers swore their oaths and made sacrifices prior to the competitions. This altar dates to the fifth century B.C.
The temple is surrounded by a square precinct that contained monuments, smaller altars, and a sacred grove of cypress trees.
It was a peaceful experience roaming this area of the sanctuary, the trees adding to the atmosphere. However, watch where you step! One of our party found a snake skin jutting from beneath one of the fallen column drums, and when he lifted it up, it had to be about five feet long.
Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes!
Fortunately, the originator of that shed skin was nowhere to be seen.
With the cicadas whirring all around us, we looked over the scant remains of the other structures located on the site, including a bath house, a row of nine oikoi, club houses built by the various city states to shelter their attendant citizens at Nemea, and the large xenon, a hotel for dignitaries that is located on the south side of the sanctuary.
The interesting thing about Nemea is that there was never a real settlement there during the Classical or Hellenistic periods. There were probably just a handful of people who lived there to tend the fields and care for the buildings the rest of the time.
During the Nemead, however, tens of thousands of Greeks gathered there for the games so that the valley of Nemea became a giant tent city, probably not unlike that which pops up at the Glastonbury festival.
After visiting the main archaeological site, and then the roaming through the small site museum, we went back to our car to drive 400 meters down the road to the southeast where the stadium of Nemea is located.
During the Nemead, after the athletes had taken their oaths and made their offerings to Zeus in the sanctuary, they would have processed from the temple of Zeus to the stadium which was created by hollowing out a part of the nearby hill.
The stadium is definitely worth a visit and, as can be the case with many lesser known sites, it was virtually deserted when we arrived.
Nemea’s stadium is smaller than Olympia’s, but it’s still substantial, as it should have been for one of the four Crown Games.
It could seat up to 40,000 spectators in its day on the roughly hewn stone seats of the embankments.
This place has some interesting features.
One of the most unique features is the ancient locker room which the processional way leads to from the sanctuary. It is here that the athletes would have stripped down, oiled themselves, and warmed up prior to competing.
Whereas at Olympia there were separate areas for doing these things, at Nemea, this locker room had multiple purposes.
Once the athletes were ready, they proceeded to enter the stadium through a vaulted tunnel that is still intact to this day, and graced with graffiti from some of the ancient athletes.
Visitors can walk through this tunnel and emerge into the bright sunlight of the stadium at roughly the half-way point.
It’s a wonderful feeling to step onto the stadium ground, and I was definitely reminiscent of my own track-and-field days, that familiar flutter of nerves and adrenaline rearing its long-dormant head.
It’s somewhat sobering to remember that the Nemean Games were begun, not as an entertaining athletic contest, but as a funerary event for a slain child.
When it’s not crowded, there is a perhaps a sense of gloom that lies over the place, despite the brilliant sunshine and colour of the landscape.
I walked around the edges of the stadium and looked at the other features of ancient ingenuity such as the stone channel that fed water around the edges of the stadium for athletes and spectators to drink, the water pumped in by way of pipes in the hill side.
Then there is the stone starting line across the track where you can see the bases for the starting mechanism and its thirteen gates.
As ever with these sites, it is good to pause and let your imagination fill in the gaps of what you are seeing.
As I stood in the middle of the stadium floor, I imagined the embankments filled with people, a murmur running the length of the spectators, and then a hush and the judges, the Hellanodikai, in their black robes of mourning for the baby Opheltes, came out and sat themselves in their box toward the middle of the stadium.
I imagined that familiar hush as the runners lined up at the starting line, and then a few rapid heartbeats before the mechanism’s rope drops and the runners are off.
At Nemea, the victors were crowned not with olive (Olympia), bay (Delphi), or pine (Isthmia), but rather with a crown of the wild celery, that plant on which the child of Lykourgos and Eurydike had been placed before he was taken from them.
When we finished looking at the site, and running a lap of our own, the sun was already beginning to dip behind the mountain peaks of Arkadia.
As we left the stadium behind, I felt like the place retained something of the cheers of crowds in ages past, but also the distant roar of a monstrous lion from the cave of its lair, said to be somewhere in the surrounding hills.
As I said, this land is pulsing with myth and legend, brought to life by its history and the hard work of the archaeologists who have sought to preserve and reconstruct the site, adding to our knowledge of it.
But if you think that the Nemean Games are long dead, you might be mistaken.
Since around the year 2000, the games have experienced a revival, and they are being held again, this year, in June of 2016.
If you have ever wondered what it was like to compete in some of the rituals and competitions of ancient athletics, you can sign-up to do so at the revived Nemean Games. Watch this short video to find out more from the man who started it!
This looks like loads of fun, and a wonderful opportunity to participate in a unique living history event that brings students, academics, and anyone else interested in ancient history and athletics, together.
I’ve wanted to participate myself, but the timing has never coincided with my trips to Greece. I hope that someday, I can, thankful for the fact that the modern revival games do not involve running naked. They are also open to both men and woman, boys and girls.
There is one more thing I would suggest you do before leaving ancient Nemea in your traveller’s wake.
As you drive away, be sure to stop at one of the many roadside wine sellers and pick up a few bottles of the wonderful Nemean wine.
This is wine country after all, and what better way to finish off a day of archaeology and site seeing than with a glass (or more!) of Agiorgitiko red.
You can drink to the success of your journey, to the memory of Opheltes, and the centuries of Nemean victors who participated in these ancient traditions.
Thank you for reading.
As I write this, a lot of my North American readers are getting buried in snow. It’s definitely winter!
So, I thought that this week it might be nice to counter the cold with a post about a site visit on one of the hottest days I experienced last summer in Greece.
I’m talking about my visit to the ancient theatre of Argos.
Until my first visit to the Peloponnese years ago, my only knowledge of Argos came from the movie, Clash of the Titans.
I can hear Harry Hamlin saying it now – “I am Perseus, heir to the kingdom of Argos.”
I loved that movie, so whenever I heard of Argos I pictured a city punished by Zeus for Acrisius’ blasphemy, turned to ruin by an earthquake and tidal wave caused by the Kraken.
Clash of the Titans had a huge impact on my imagination. Great storytelling!
Despite that, for years I had driven past Argos (an easy place to get lost in!), and seen the signs to the ancient theatre, but never stopped to explore.
It took some research for Heart of Fire to make me plan a trip to the archaeological site, and I’m so glad that I did!
On a day when the temperature soared slightly over 40 degrees Celsius, we set out from where we were staying in the southern Argolid peninsula, over the mountain switchbacks, and along the road from ancient Epidaurus to Nauplio. From Nauplio and the shadow of the Palamidi castle, our car whined along, past the ancient citadel of Tiryns, and then on to the city of Argos at the top of the Argolic Gulf.
Once in the city, we promptly got lost.
No matter how many signs we saw for the ancient theatre, it seemed that we kept missing one important turn, and so we found ourselves in the farmers’ fields to the south of the city, among irrigation canals and orange groves.
A friendly Russian mechanic finally gave us some convoluted instructions, in Greek, with a lot of pointing, and eventually we found our way there.
We parked our car in the shade of a side street, alongside the ancient agora, crossed the road, and checked in at the entrance.
Due to funding restrictions, there were no site plans available at the time, but that was all right as the person working there said there were placards around the site.
The best part was that we had the entire archaeological site to ourselves!
Before I get into the site visit itself, I would be remiss if I did not touch on the history of Argos.
Argos is believed to be the first town of any sort in Greece, or the surrounding geographical regions. It has been inhabited since the prehistoric age. It was a great centre during the Mycenaean age, along with Mycenae itself, and Tiryns nearby.
It its rise to power, Argos assimilated some of its smaller neighbours such as Tiryns, Mycenae, and Nemea, site of the Nemean Games. Argos was one of the foremost cities of Greece during the Classical period, as well as during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, until about A.D. 395 when it went into decline.
It was nearer to the Argonic gulf in ancient times, just as Tiryns was, but due to the silting up of the land, it now lies a short distance to the north of the seashore.
The peak of Argos’ power was said to have been in the 7th century B.C. during the reign of King Pheidon, the latter credited by some with the development of hoplite battle tactics in the Peloponnese.
From the 7th to 5th centuries B.C., Argos came into conflict with that mighty martial power to the south, Sparta. During that time, the two city states fought for domination of the Argolid peninsula.
During the Persian wars, Argos decided not to fight the Persians alongside their fellow Greeks, and so became a bit of an outcast. Then, during the Peloponnesian War, it was a somewhat ineffective ally of Athens against their old rival, Sparta.
But Argos thrived during the Roman period too. In addition to being a centre for pottery production and the tanning of leather, Argos was a leader in bronze work. It was here that a noted school of bronze sculpting was established.
When that famous philhellene emperor, Hadrian, came into power, he showed this ancient Greek city much favour, and, among several building projects in Argos, he gave the city an aqueduct and baths, or thermae.
I didn’t actually know what to expect from the site of the theatre in Argos when we parked our car. After all, I’d already been to Epidaurus, and that is pretty tough to match.
However, when we passed through the pine-shaded gates into the blinding light of the site itself, I knew it was going to be fantastic.
As you step down the stairs into the archaeological site, you are staring directly down an ancient street with walls rising up on either side in the faded white, grey and red of antiquity.
The sun beat down on us with an intensity I’ve seldom experienced. The cicadas even sounded tired, their little hearts (if they have one?) probably near to bursting for all their song. We stopped here and there to look at some chipped and worn ornamentation, the gravel of the path crunching beneath our feet, sending lizards scampering into the ancient cracks and crevices.
I tried to imagine what the place would have looked like in its golden age, the walls and buildings of the neighbouring baths and other buildings rising high above the street level, perhaps some torches jutting out from the walls to light the way as the crowds were funneled into the theatre itself.
The theatre of Argos is a beautiful monster.
It was the largest theatre in ancient Greece, with a seating capacity of 20,000 spectators!
From a distance, it looks like any other theatre, but when you are up close and personal with it, you feel like a fly on the back of the Cretan Bull.
It has 81 rows of seats that rise up steeply from the round orchestra, one of only two such orchestras in ancient Greece, the other being at Epidaurus. The amazing thing about the theatre of Argos is that it’s carved directly into the rock of the Larisa which overlooks the city of Argos.
Behind the orchestra are the proscenion and scene, buildings that served as the stage and backdrop. I stood on the stage overlooking the orchestra and just took it all in.
What a sight!
The present theatre was built in the 3rd century B.C. and was used to host the musical and dramatic contests of the Nemean Games in honour of Hera, the patron goddess of this ancient city.
Once I had taken in the view from below, I began to walk up to the top of the seats.
I really started to cook here, the sun beating down on the stone increasing in intensity. But I couldn’t resist going to the top. It is actually quite steep, and the seating is nowhere near in as good a condition as Epidaurus.
However, it is well worth the trek, for when you reach the top, the view is amazing.
From the top of the theatre, with pine and towering cypress trees flanking me, I stared down the rows of seats to the stage, beyond to the ancient agora of Argos, just across the street, and the into the distance over the modern town to see the brilliant blue of the Argolic Gulf, and the mound of ancient Tiryns, just visible through the heat haze, like a thing out of legend.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, but it wasn’t until my arms started to sizzle that I thought perhaps I should head back to my party waiting in the shade of a pine tree at the bottom.
The site, apparently, was closing, and so I had a quick look at the remains of the sanctuary of Aphrodite to the right of the theatre, where a smaller Odeon was located, and then the Roman baths opposite.
The ruins of the latter are worth a look too, and you can see marble floor and wall panels, the remains of columns, and some of the rooms of the Roman thermae. You can imagine the water dripping as you walk through there, the sound of conversation, the slap of masseurs’ hands on the backs of their clients. Just be careful where you walk, for snakes hide the shady corners, and there are some big drops if you spend more time looking through your camera lens than you should.
Before leaving the site behind, I had to do one last thing: test the acoustics of the theatre.
Since we had the place to ourselves, I didn’t quite mind doing so. It’s a little difficult to hear the echo of my voice in this video, but, even though the theatre is ruined, and the lines broken in many spots, you can just hear how my voice travels up to the top when I turn to face the theatre. The acoustics of this place blew me away.
When I started talking in the direction of the seats, it was like I was holding a megaphone. I could hear my voice travelling up the rows of seats all the way to the top to disappear into the wild growth beyond.
If my untrained voice projected so well in that place, I can imagine what a trained actor’s would do.
With the site manager waving to us that it was time to go, I reluctantly turned my back on this ancient marvel, and walked back up the street.
Before exiting, I turned for one last glimpse of the theatre, grateful that we had taken the time to stop.
As we were leaving, we asked the site manager if we could visit the agora across the street, but he shook his head and told us that, due to budget cuts, all the sites were closing for the day. It was only 2:00 pm. He also told us that he had just heard Greece was going to have to sell some of its archaeological sites due to pressure from creditors.
I certainly hoped that was not true, for it would be a tragedy if the country lost control and care of such magnificent sites at the ancient theatre of Argos.
We thanked him, wished him well, and told him we would definitely be back to see the agora on another trip.
I was happy we visited, not only for the chance to see the site, but also to fuel the story for Heart of Fire, one of the protagonists of the story being an Argive mercenary. I needed to get a sense of the place where he grew up, the place he had left behind.
And I did.
Back in the car, we found the road to Nauplio once more and headed there for a stop at one of the seaside cafes and gelato at our favourite gelateria, Antica Gelateria di Roma.
After all, it’s isn’t only archaeological sites that warrant a return visit. Especially when it’s over 40 degrees!
Thank you for reading.
This week I thought I would share a little something about my research for, and writing of, my upcoming book Heart of Fire.
As mentioned in the last post, I’m getting close to the end of this book, and it’s going to be fantastic. I can feel it in my bones.
I wanted to touch on a particular scene that I wrote last week.
Without giving anything away, the scene in question is a climactic boxing match set during the Olympics of 396 B.C.
Now, I’ve written more fight scenes than I can count in my stories, some very realistic, others fantastical, some ugly, some inspiring. Most of the time they have been fought with weapons.
However, boxing is a more visceral sport, especially ancient Greek boxing.
I knew I needed to make this fight count, to put the reader ‘ringside’ so that she/he can taste the sweat and blood, and feel the impact of every hit.
I’m not a boxer, and though I’ve taken part in some martial arts, I had to admit that I had no idea how a man, or his body, would react during an ancient Greek boxing match.
You see, ancient boxing was not like modern boxing.
First of all, the ancient Greeks did not cover their fists with soft gloves. Instead, they used something called himantes. These were thick strips of leather, rawhide, or sometimes lead, that were fastened to a fighter’s fists with linen or leather straps. The fingers were not covered, but left free to grab, to poke and jab, as well as punch.
In modern boxing, there are basically four punches: the direct or straight punch, the upper cut, the jab, and the hook. Combinations of these are used variously.
In contrast, ancient boxing included many more types of hits, including slaps, hammer punches, backhands, chops, pokes, elbows, swipes and many more.
Truthfully, ancient boxing was more like Wing Chun Kung Fu arm techniques than modern boxing. It differed from the pankration mainly in that there were no holds or grappling, and perhaps fewer intentional bone-breaking moves.
Before writing, I had to dispel with my modern ideas of boxing and what it should look like. Also, there were no ‘rounds’ in ancient boxing. The two fighters went at each other until someone was knocked out, or until one of the fighters surrendered. If neither of those two things happened, and if no one died, a fight could go on all day.
When writing an ancient boxing scene, in addition to being accurate, each fight also has to propel the story forward. I started by looking at some famous movie fights, and what better boxing match to look at than the last bout in Rocky I. Click on the image below to watch the fight scene:
Sure, this seems a bit dated now, but it’s one of the most famous modern boxing scenes in movie history. This showed me how the story can be told without speech, but rather the actors’ bodies, how the strain and struggle tell a story without words. It illustrates the all-important, ancient idea of ponos, the toil and passion of an athlete or warrior.
So, Rocky helped me visualize the storyline of my fight scene, and how it would move the characters forward. Next however, I needed to visualize how ancient boxing might look mechanically.
Of course, I can make some pretty good guesses and get creative – that’s the joy of writing after all – but I wanted to find at least a small demonstration to help it sink in. Luckily, I found a video from the Historical European Martial Arts Coalition (HEMAC) conference in Dijon France, demonstrating the art of ancient Greek boxing.
This is a short video but I found it very helpful. The men sparring are holding back a little, as it is a demonstration only, but you can easily imagine what it might be like with the rawhide, or lead pieces inserted in the himantes, and the fighters hitting one another full force.
It would be brutal, and oftentimes, quick.
If you’ve seen some of the top 20 boxing knock-out videos on YouTube, you’ll know that with one hit to the head, a massive, strong man can crumple like a rag doll. It’s not pretty.
Take off the modern padded gloves, and substitute them for ancient himantes, and you’ve got yourself a genuine ancient bloodsport.
If you want to learn a bit more about the sorts of injuries that might occur in an ancient boxing match, CLICK HERE to read a fascinating article.
The men who emerged victorious in boxing at the ancient Olympiad trained hard, as if for war, and if they walked off the skamma, the sand, as the victor, they were able to achieve the sort of immortality reserved for demi-gods and heroes.
As the year wears on, and I get closer to releasing Heart of Fire, I’ll share more of the story, including some excerpts.
For now, I’ll press on toward the novel’s finish line, bringing this exciting event of the ancient world to life.
Thank you for reading.
We’re drawing close to the end of 2015 and, like many people do, I’ve starting thinking back over some of the things we’ve seen in the media over the past twelve months.
The world is mad, there’s no doubt about it, and prayers for world peace and goodness are more needed than ever.
Chaos seems to rule much of the world, and this past year, even history and archaeology did not escape unscathed. With the blatant destruction of sites such as Hatra and Nineveh, Palmyra and now possibly sites in Libya, we are seeing things that have stood for thousands of years turn to dust.
It’s been a sad year for the past, and this makes our future look bleaker in some respects. Needless to say, the human suffering is on a whole other level…
But I don’t want to cast a shadow on the time of the Solstice, the time of the Sun’s rebirth.
Instead, I want to take a look at some of the shining lights of creation and human achievement in the past. Just because something is gone, does not mean it doomed to be forgotten.
There are certain ancient sites that have captivated humans since their creation, and inspired artistic and architectural traditions for centuries. They are beacons, they are supreme examples of will and imagination, and they are pure magnificence.
They are The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The mere mentioned of the Seven Wonders stirs a longing in me for some vague but powerful reason. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of bygone ages of which I have often daydreamed?
The truth is, I’m not alone in this feeling, this fascination with a list of monuments created so long ago. The Seven Wonders have captured the imagination of people since the Hellenistic age. Sure, the list might have changed a little, but its celebration of artistic and architectural inspiration and achievement most certainly has not.
Where did the list come from?
Consensus points to two figures of the ancient world who may have compiled the most popular list: Philo of Byzantium and Antipater of Sidon.
Philo of Byzantium was a 3rd century B.C. resident of Alexandria who wrote a compendium of mechanics, and Antipater of Sidon was a Greek poet of the 2nd century B.C.
It is no coincidence that the two men were Greek. After the campaigns of Alexander, and the fall of the Persian Empire, the East opened up and Hellenic people and ideas spread far from the homeland. Greeks had been living in Egypt and Persia for a long time already by then, but now they could move about more freely and that meant one thing: tourism!
To that point in time, Herodotus was the Lonely Planet guide of the day, but people didn’t necessarily want to travel. War with Persia made that a risky undertaking. But when the last embers of the Wars of Succession finally died and the world was safe again, there was mass movement of people and ideas. The list of the Seven Wonders could have been a wonderful itinerary, or at least a list of popular hotspots around the eastern Mediterranean.
It is no surprise that Philo was a mathematician inclined to mechanics and that Antipater was a poet. The Seven Wonders would have appealed to both men as monuments of inspiration that many could not even guess at how they were constructed.
Let’s have a brief look at this wonderful list of monuments.
I – The Pyramids of Giza
It’s ironic, but the Pyramids of Giza which were built around 2,600 B.C. are the oldest monuments on the list, and yet they are the only ones that survive to this day. I had a chance once to go to Egypt on a dig but that was the year just after 9/11 and all hell had broken loose. The dig was cancelled. No matter how many times I see the pyramids on television, I can never get over their simple magnificence. And I’m sure they are even more striking in real life. As the last remaining wonder on the list, I hope I don’t miss out.
II – The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The hanging gardens of Babylon are interesting and their existence is still widely contested, the date of their possible building unknown. From what is said, the Hanging Gardens were created by Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605-562 B.C.) for his Median wife, Amytis who was homesick in that dry land. So, he is said to have built a sort of stepped pyramid with terraces that were covered with lush gardens of flowers and fruit trees. It is said there was a complex irrigation system for the entire gardens from top to bottom and that exotic animals roamed its heights. I don’t know if this is truth or fable, but I do know that this was supposed to be one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet. Here is what Quintus Curtius Rufus says about the Hanging Gardens:
“On its summit [of the Babylonian citadel] are the hanging gardens, a wonder celebrated by the fables of the Greeks. They are as high as the top of the walls and owe their charm to the shade of many tall trees. The columns supporting the whole edifice are built of rock, and on top of them is a flat surface of squared stones strong enough to bear the deep layer of earth placed upon it and the water used for irrigating it. So stout are the trees the structure supports that their trunks are eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet; they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment… It has a substructure of walls twenty feet thick at eleven foot intervals, so that from a distance one has the impression of woods overhanging their native mountains.” (Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander)
The rest of the monuments on the list from now on are Greek. No surprise since the compilers of the list were Greek. Nonetheless, these monuments are indeed deserving of ancient accolades.
III – Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built in the sixth-century B.C. in what is now modern Turkey, was one of the largest, most beautiful temples of the ancient world. Its construction was paid for by the wealthy Lydian King, Croesus. It took ten years to build and brought pilgrims to Ephesus for centuries. The temple was said to be about 137 meters long, 69 meters wide and 18 meters high with more than 127 columns. Sadly, the temple was destroyed by raiding Goths in the third century A.D. However, the memory of the beauty of this temple to the Goddess of the Hunt would live on.
For Antipater of Sidon, it was the most beautiful of all the wonders:
“…when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.” (Antipater, Greek Anthology
IV – The Statue of Zeus, Olympia
Ancient Olympia is one of the few sites on this list that I have been fortunate enough to visit. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately as I work my way through Heart of Fire. Ancient Olympia is one of my favourite sites in Greece, this peaceful, green sanctuary nestled between the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos in the eastern Peloponnese. Sadly, the twelve-meter, ivory and gold statue of Olympian Zeus was looted from the sanctuary long ago to fall victim to fire in another land.
However the fifth-century B.C. remains of the Temple of Zeus, which contained this wonder, still exist. So too does the workshop where the artist Pheidias laboured to shape the ivory that would create a giant, life-like representation of the king of the gods. The column drums of the temple now lie in domino lengths, grass-covered victims of earthquakes, and the workshop is bare and open to the sky. However, if you can make it there someday try standing on the paving slabs of the temple floor. Imagine the thick, Doric columns running the length of the interior to flank the giant statue of Zeus seated upon his throne. Then imagine how small a person must have felt in that space, the awe and the silence that resulted from being in the god’s presence.
V – The Mausuleum at Halicarnassus
Back to Asia Minor now for the fifth of the Seven Wonders. Now we find ourselves in the ancient city of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, in Turkey. This was the site of the tomb of King Mausolus of Caria. The tomb, built in the mid-fourth century B.C., was not just any tomb. King Mausolus wanted to outdo all previous memorials, and so he commissioned the tomb by which all others would henceforth be measured.
King Mausolus’ ‘mausoleum’ was approximately 48 meters high and adorned top to bottom with the most beautiful, columns, reliefs and statuary of the day. The most talented artists and craftsmen of the Greek world were hired to work on it. It had statues of gods and goddesses, centaurs and lapiths, men and women, lions and other beasts. It rose into the sky to tower above Halicarnassus and to top it off was a massive four-horse chariot driven by Mausolus, with his wife Artemisia at his side. Mausolus never lived to see his tomb completed and so the task fell to Artemisia. But she died two years later. It is a testament to the craftsmen that they stayed to finished the mausoleum even then, after their patrons had gone into the afterlife.
VI – The Colossus of Rhodes
The island of Rhodes in the south-east Aegean is one of the larger Greek islands and a place of great beauty. It was said to have been the domain of the sun god, Helios. To commemorate the victory of Rhodes over Antigonous I of Cyprus, the Rhodians erected the Colossus between 292 and 280 B.C. The bronze statue of Helios was said to straddle the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes to a height of 33.5 meters, making it one of the tallest statues in the world, visible from far out at sea.
Today, if you visit Rhodes, it is the medieval city that really stands out to the visitor. The Colossus stood for only fifty-six years before it fell victim to an earthquake. It must have been an awe-inspiring sight while it stood. Now, the points where the feet of the statue were planted are marked by two pedestals at the harbour entrance. Though it did not stand for long, the influence of the Colossus of Rhodes lasted for ages, inspiring the Emperor Nero to erect his own colossus in Rome. A more modern version that was inspired by the Colossus is the French-built Statue of Liberty in New York, another beacon to guide and welcome travellers.
VII – The Pharos of Alexandria
The last structure on the list of the Seven Wonders was located in the most famous city founded by Alexander the Great: Alexandria. The Lighthouse, or ‘Pharos’, of Alexandria was built between 280 and 247 B.C. Some sources say it rose to a height of as much as 140 meters and that its reflected fires could been seen from unimaginable distances out at sea. The lighthouse guided ships into the city that had become the great metropolis of the world. For centuries the Pharos was the tallest structure in the world and was actually the third, longest-standing of the Seven Wonders after the Mausoleum and pyramids at Giza.
The great Lighthouse of Alexandria was truly a beacon to draw the world to one of the most advanced, civilized cities in existence.
In addition to being inspired by a look at the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I’m also a little saddened by it.
I think of what was, and what could have been, had they stood to this day (we’re fortunate indeed to have the Pyramids!). What would the world be like if we could still look upon the statue of Zeus at Olympia, or tour the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Part of me thinks that it would be amazing to sail up to Rhodes beneath the gaze of the Colossus, or to walk the terraces of the Mausoleum gazing upon the statuary as upon an outdoor museum.
However, another part of me thinks that our modern world would ruin those things. I don’t want to imagine these once-brilliant monuments stained by exhaust and pollution, or surrounded by kiosks selling plastic souvenirs made in China. Would the names of countless tourists be scratched into the marble of the Temple of Artemis, or would the ankles of the Colossus be ringed with spray paint?
I think those things would be infinitely more painful than looking upon the ruins of these wonders and imagining what once was. These artistic and architectural wonders were more than just tourist attractions. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were, and are, markers in the timeline of human history, intended to inspire and to raise man from the dust so that the gods might catch a glimpse of those achievements, those offerings, and smile back with pride.
So, it may be that we no longer have these ancient treasures, just as we no longer have Hatra, Nineveh, Palmyra and others.
But we can certainly take heart from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They may mostly be gone, but they will certainly never be forgotten.
Happy Holidays (whatever you are celebrating), and Happy Solstice to all of you.
Thank you for reading…
If you’re looking for something fascinating to watch over the holidays, be sure to check out this documentary by John Romer on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!