Why is it that a lot of writers steer clear of ancient religious practices in fiction?
Is it because it’s awkward and clashes with their modern beliefs, religious or otherwise? Or perhaps it’s because they don’t feel comfortable writing about something so strange, practices they really know very little about?
There is a lot of good fiction set in the ancient world and I’m always trying to find new novels to entertain and transport myself. One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to the religious practices of ancient Greeks and Romans, they are often (not always) portrayed as half-hearted, greeted with a good measure of pessimism. It might be a passing nod to a statue of a particular god or goddess, or a comment by the protagonist that he or she was making an offering even though they didn’t think it would do any good.
There is often an undercurrent of non-belief, a lack of mystery.
Now, I’m not full of religious fervour myself; it’s difficult for anyone who has studied history in depth to be so. However, I see the value of it and respect its meaning for people across the ages. Religion is not necessarily at the forefront of our thoughts in modern, western society, but, in the ancient and medieval worlds, faith was often foremost in people’s thoughts.
It’s easy, blinded by hindsight, to dismiss ancient beliefs in the gods and goddesses of our ancestors.
As a writer, why would I want to dismiss something that is so important to the period in which my novels take place, something so important to the thoughts and motives of my characters?
People in ancient Greece and Rome (for example) believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses who governed every aspect of life. From the emotions one felt or the lighting of a family hearth fire, to the start of a business venture or a soldier’s march to battle, most people held their gods and goddesses close. Indeed, there was a god or goddess with accompanying rituals for almost everything.
Religion enriches the ancient world in historical fiction and sets it apart from today, transports the reader to a world that is foreign and exotic. And the beauty is that there is so much mystery, so little known, that the writer can spread his or her creative wings.
Of course, it’s always important to do as much research as possible – if the primary texts don’t tell you much, then look to the paintings on ceramics, wall frescoes, statues and other carvings. If you can get to the actual sanctuaries of the ancient world, even better, for they are places where even the most sceptical person can feel that there is (or was) indeed something different going on.
When I write, I try to do something different by having my main characters in close touch with the gods of their ancestors. Since it is historical fantasy, I can get that much more creative in having characters interact with the gods who have a clear role to play and are characters themselves.
The beautiful thing about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome is that they are almost human, prone to the same emotions, the same prejudices, that we are. From a certain point of view, they’re more accessible.
Despite this however, their worship, be it Apollo, Venus, Magna Mater, Isis, Jupiter, Mithras or any other, is still shrouded in mystery, clouded by the passage of time. Thousands and thousands of ancient Greeks and Romans flocked to Elefsis to take part in the mysteries dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, but little is known because devotees were sworn to secrecy. Oaths then were ‘water-tight’ as the saying went. Also, at one point, most of the Roman army worshiped Mithras, the Persian Lord of Light and Truth. Do we know much about Mithraism? Some, but there is still much that is not known and perhaps never will be.
In one of my books some of the characters pay a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was still revered in the Roman Empire. Today, if you watch a documentary on Delphi, you will hear about how the oracle was used by politicians to deliver fabricated answers to those seeking the god’s advice. It is true that politics and religion in the ancient and medieval worlds were frequent bedfellows, but one can not dismiss the power of belief and inspiration. If the Athenians had not received the famous answer from the Delphic Oracle about being saved by Athens’ ‘wooden walls’, then they might not have had such a crushing naval victory over the Persians at Salamis.
There is a lot of room for debate on this topic and many, I suspect, will feel strongly for or against the exploration of ancient religion in fiction. If we feel inclined to dismiss ancient beliefs, to have our characters belittle them, to explain them away, we must ask ourselves why.
Do we dismiss ancient beliefs because we think they are silly, quaint, barbaric or false? Or do we stay away from them because we just don’t understand? Taking an interest in them, giving them some space on our blank pages, doesn’t mean we dismiss our own beliefs, it just means that we are open-minded and interested in accurately portraying the world about which we are writing.
I like my fiction to be vast and multi-hued. Like the Roman Empire, all gods and goddesses are welcome to be a part of the whole and it is my hope that, being inclusive, my own stories will be more interesting, more true to life, more mysterious.
I suppose, at the end of the day, we each have to decide whether to take that leap of faith.
Thank you for reading.
We’re half-way through our series on The World of Heart of Fire, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts thus far.
At this point, I think it apt to stop and look at one of the central aspects of the book, and the ancient Olympics in general: Religion.
It might be difficult for us to imagine today, especially when our modern Olympic Games are more dominated by advertisements and the media in general; we are more likely to associate Adidas and Coke with the Olympics rather than a deep-rooted belief if our chosen god or gods.
But we are talking about the ancient world here, a time when the occurrence of the Olympic Games stopped wars across the Greek world in honour of the gods.
The Olympic Games were, first and foremost, a religious festival to honour Zeus.
But it is not as straightforward as that.
The concepts of ponos (one’s personal toil), philoneikia (love of competing), and philonikia (love of winning) were, as we have discussed in previous posts, central to a champion’s psyche, and to ancient Greek society in general.
To better oneself, to perfect oneself physically and mentally, was to honour the gods themselves.
In order to better understand the ancient world, we need to change our perspective. It’s important to remember that, though many people today don’t even think twice about religion, or believe in any sort of god, this was not so in Ancient Greece, or the rest of the ancient world for that matter.
In the ancient world, people believed the gods were everywhere, that they had a role to play in every aspect of life, whether one was starting a new business, setting out on a journey, going into battle, or lining up at the starting line for an Olympic foot race.
The gods affected everything, and so they were always given their due. The ancient Olympics were no exception to this.
Everything, every event at ancient Olympia was accented with religion and ceremony because the gods themselves were watching.
In the Altis alone there were sixty-nine altars where the Theokoloi, the priests of Olympia, competitors, trainers, and spectators could make offerings to the gods. These were in addition to the magnificent temples of Zeus and Hera which dominated the sanctuary.
There was a whole industry of faith at Olympia as well, for in the south stoa and other places, vendors sold votive statues in clay or bronze, including figures of horses, chariots, running men, and tripods. One could also obtain animals for sacrifice, herbs, oils and more.
Individuals would have made offerings with their prayers for victory during their time at Olympia, prior to their events, and afterward.
There were sacrifices and offerings to the gods at the opening of every day, and before events such as the chariot race where an altar lay near the starting gates on the track of the hippodrome.
There were also the marquee religious ceremonies of the Olympic Games which all athletes, trainers and others were expected to attend.
If you have watched the opening ceremony of a modern Olympic Games, you will know that the athletes always take the Olympic Oath.
In the ancient Olympics, the Oath-taking ceremony was a solemn occasion. The ceremony took place at an altar, beside the Bouleuterion, where a wild boar was sacrificed to Zeus Horkios (Zeus of Oaths).
This was overseen by the Theokoloi, and during the proceedings, athletes would swear that they had trained for at least ten months, and that they would compete honourably and not shame the games.
Another part of the Olympics we are all familiar with is the lighting of the Olympic flame.
Just to the northwest of the temple of Hera, was located a square enclosure and buildings called the Prytaneion. This was built in the sixth century B.C. and was used to put on banquets for Olympic victors and other officials.
More importantly, the Prytaneion was where the Eternal Olympic Flame burned beside the altar of the goddess Hestia, the goddess of the hearth and home. This was a sacred place at Olympia, and the fact that victors were celebrated beside the Eternal Flame speaks to the greatness, and divine sanction, of their achievement.
There were also religious relics on-site at ancient Olympia, making it not only a place for competition, but also of pilgrimage, perhaps more so the latter. These relate mainly to the story of Pelops and Hippodameia and that foundation myth of the Olympic Games.
You see, the ancient Greeks firmly believed in the tale of Pelops and Hippodameia, that particular hero-couple being the parents of Atreus, and grandparents of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the kings of Mycenae and Sparta.
To the Greeks visiting Olympia, this was history.
In the temple of Hera there was said to be an ornamental couch that served as a reliquary for Hippodameia’s bones, she who had helped Pelops win against her father and who, in thanks, established the Heraia, the games in honour of Hera in thanks for the victory.
In the treasury of the Sikyionians, at the north end of the Altis, in the shadow of the Hill of Kronos, there were relics of Pelops himself. One of these was his dagger, and the other was an ivory shoulder blade which travelled to Troy and back during the Trojan War.
The shoulder blade was said to be the one that the gods fashioned to replace the original mistakenly eaten by Demeter when Pelops’ wicked father, Tantalus, served his son to the gods at a banquet. The gods resurrected Pelops, and the rest is Olympic myth and history.
The cult of Pelops was powerful at ancient Olympia. Other than the cenotaphs, memorials, and horse burials that were said to be raised by Pelops and Hippodameia around Olympia, the focus of the cult was the Pelopion.
This was the barrow mound, or burial, of Pelops himself which was located in the middle of the Altis between the temples of Hera and Zeus. Some important scenes in Heart of Fire take place at this monument which was surrounded by a pentagonal enclosure, and where offerings were made to the shade of Pelops.
As mentioned before, religious ceremony was central to the Olympic Games, and the greatest of these ceremonies, most agree, happened on the third day of the games.
This was the hecatomb in honour of Zeus.
What is a hecatomb?
Well, it’s the sacrifice of one hundred cattle.
Can you imagine what that must have been like…the sound of one hundred lowing cattle, the tang of blood in the air, and the smoke of the offerings as the bones wrapped in fat were offered to the gods, and the lean cuts were roasted for everyone at Olympia.
This was a solemn ritual that would have kept the Theokoloi and their attendants extremely busy, but it was all for Zeus, King of the Gods, and it did not get more serious than that.
The sacrifices would have taken place at the Great Altar of Zeus which was located in the middle of the Altis. This altar was said to be a large, cone-shaped structure that was made up of piled ash and bones from centuries of offerings.
Pausanias describes the Great Altar where the hecatomb was offered to Zeus:
The altar of Olympic Zeus is about equally distant from the Pelopion and the sanctuary of Hera, but it is in front of both. Some say that it was built by Idaean Heracles, others by the local heroes two generations later than Heracles. It has been made from the ash of the thighs of the victims sacrificed to Zeus… (Pausanias Description of Greece 5.13.8)
There can be no doubt that the most important religious structures in the Altis of ancient Olympia were the temples of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Olympian gods. These two ancient structures rose above the mass of altars, statues, and milling crowds, the powerful, archaic columns simple and strong, fitting for the dwelling place of the gods at Olympia.
Though the Games were dedicated to Zeus, Hera was certainly given her due at Olympia.
When Pelops was victorious in his chariot race against Hippodameia’s father, Oinomaus, Hippodameia established the Heraia, the games in honour of Hera, in thanks for the victory. This was the only event for women that was held on the sacred ground of Olympia.
As mentioned, Hippodameia’s bones were kept in a couch inside the temple of Hera, but also kept within that temple were the twenty shields that were used in the Olympic hoplite race, the hoplitodromos.
The centrepiece of the Altis however, was indeed the temple of Olympian Zeus.
This temple contained the titanic chryselephantine statue of Zeus, created on site by the sculptor Pheidias, whose workshop was just outside the Altis. The statue was made of ivory and gold and portrayed Zeus seated on his throne with the goddess Nike in his hand, that goddess who crowned the victors.
Now you know where the shoe company gets its name!
The victory ceremony was a solemn religious occasion that happened after a competitor was proclaimed ‘best among the Greeks’ and given a linen headband as a sign of their victory.
After that, there was a procession of victors through the Altis to the temple of Zeus, with onlookers showering the victors with phylobolia, fresh flowers and greens.
Before Zeus, men were crowned with the sacred olive crowns in a ceremony called the ‘binding of the crown’. These crowns were made from boughs of the sacred olive trees that were located near the temple of Zeus.
It may be hard for us to imagine this moment, when an ancient athlete was crowed before the gods. It was indeed a deeply religious moment, with the singing of hymns in honour of Herakles, Zeus’ son.
It was believed that men won, not only by skill and training, but more so by divine grace. Sacrifices were made at this time, and then victors enjoyed a meal in the Prytaneion in the presence of the eternal Olympic flame.
Of course, ancient sources are sparse, and the exact details of every aspect of ceremony at the ancient Olympics cannot be known for sure. However, what has come down to us paints enough of a picture to help us understand that the ancient games were not just about running and pounding away at one’s opponent.
Attending the ancient Olympics, for ancient Greeks, was a pilgrimage that deserved respect, a sacred rite to honour the gods through skill and performance, and, if the gods smiled, through victory.
If you ever get a chance to walk the grounds of ancient Olympia, you will certainly get a sense of the deep connection between religion and the Olympic Games.
In the next post, we will look at one of the oldest Olympic sports that plays a big role in Heart of Fire: Boxing.
Thank you for reading!
Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics is now available in e-book and paperback formats. CLICK HERE to check it out!
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” ( Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth)
December 7th is launch day for Chariot of the Son, the first book in the new Mythologia series.
Today, I wanted to talk a bit about the importance of myths and of retelling them.
Why is it that myths and legends have stood the test of time? Why are they still as popular today as they ever were?
Those are some wide open questions that I won’t fully answer here, for that kind of discussion, you should read Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well as the transcript of the discussion between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell called The Power of Myth.
“Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamic of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions sown are directly valid for all mankind” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces)
Myth and legend speak to us on a level that is both spiritual and psychological. Humans have always been drawn to tales about gods and heroes, of great deeds done under extreme circumstances.
And as Campbell posits, the archetypes of the hero and the journey he takes are things that cross cultures and eras in human history. No matter the age in which we live upon this earth, we are drawn to elements of the tales that make up our myths and legends. We never tire of them.
Our ancient myths and legends are still going strong, not only because we connect with them in such a deep way, but also because we tell and retell these stories over and over again for successive generations.
When I was little, I loved the story of Perseus and Medusa, and I’m sure that young Greek warriors or Roman lads enjoyed those stories too.
The myths inspire us to be greater, to exceed ourselves, to press on through hardship. We gain strength through hearing them and experiencing them.
You may not enjoy some retellings of myths and legends such as Hercules, Clash of the Titans, or the Percy Jackson novels, but they are important in that they keep these tales alive, they continue to inspire. For the record, I enjoyed all of those I just mentioned!
A young Henry VIII may have enjoyed tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, flipping through his copy of Caxton’s printing of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, as much as a youth would today reading a more recent iteration by Howard Pyle. I know I did, and still do.
Myths and legends throughout our history have also served as ‘teaching tales’ for humanity. We learn, and are reminded of, courage and compassion, humility and goodness, fear and heroism, life and death, and everything in between. Myths and legends show us the good, the bad, the ugly, and the truly divine of mortals and immortals.
These tales brought us closer to our gods and heroes, and as a result help us to come closer to who we are, or have the potential to be.
“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces)
In deciding to retell various myths and legends as part of the Mythologia series, I am on a quest to write new and entertaining versions of these tales. But I also want to get up close and personal with the gods, goddesses, and heroes who have haunted the realms of my imagination since I first became aware of them.
I’m not sure which myth I will explore next, but whichever one it is, I can’t wait to unleash my imagination in the same way as I did with the first one in the Mythologia series.
Chariot of the Son is out this December 7th, 2014, and will be available for just $0.99 cents until the Winter Solstice. So be sure to grab a copy! You can read a lengthy excerpt by clicking HERE.
Also, I’ve been interviewed on the website of a fellow author, Effrosyni Moschoudi, whose book, The Necklace of the Goddess Athena, has been rocking the Amazon charts. If you missed it, be sure to check out Effrosyni’s brilliant guest post from last week on the Goddess Athena and the Parthenon.
If you would like to read a bit more about what inspired the Mythologia series, as well as my other writing projects, head on over to Effrosyni’s Blog to read the interview and find out some behind-the-scenes stuff!
I guess I’ll see you the other side of launch day. I do hope you enjoy my retelling of the Phaethon myth in Chariot of the Son.
For now, I think it nice to leave you with some more words by Joseph Campbell:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth)
Thank you for reading.
Today we have a very special guest on Writing the Past.
Effrosyni Moschoudi is a fellow author whose books have been making a big splash on the Amazon charts and on book review sites around the web.
I’ve read her book, The Necklace of the Goddess Athena, and it is a wonderful book that is full of mystery, wonder, and goodness. Click HERE to read my review of it.
For a while I’ve wanted to have Effrosyni, a native of Athens, guest post here to talk about the ancient city and the bright-eyed goddess for whom it is named.
So, over to Effrosyni for a magical post…
GODDESS ATHENA AND HER SACRED TEMPLE, THE PARTHENON
A Guest post by Effrosyni Moschoudi
Goddess Athena was greatly revered by the ancient Greeks. One of her many epithets, Pallada (or Pallas), was owed to the peculiarity of her birth. According to legend, she sprang forth from the forehead of her father Zeus, fully armed and shaking her spear fiercely, making a fearsome sound. The word Pallada is derived from the Greek word ‘pallein’ which means ‘to shake’.
This divine young virgin was among other things, the goddess of wisdom and justice. Her sacred symbols include the owl and the olive tree. According to legend, she challenged Poseidon on the Athens Acropolis aiming to win the patronship of the city. The two Gods agreed to each offer a gift before king Cecrops and the witnessing Athenians; the better gift would grant the deity the greatly desired patronship status.
Poseidon went first, striking the Acropolis Rock with his trident to produce the Sea of Erechtheus; a salt spring. As the myth goes, the Athenians weren’t particularly impressed with this gift, as the water wasn’t fit to drink. Poseidon then offered a second gift, a horse, to be used for war. When Athena’s turn came, she struck the ground with her spear and an olive tree sprouted from it swiftly; a magnificent gift to be used for nourishment, beauty and light in the dark. King Cecrops and the people of Athens favored the gift of the olive tree and declared Athena the patron deity of the city that inevitably took on her name.
According to myth, Poseidon was enraged by this and stormed to western Attica, where he flooded the Thriasian Plain. His rivalry with Athena, even though she is his niece, is legendary in Greek mythology. Homer’s Odyssey illustrates it heavily, telling the world of this fearsome uncle and his cunning niece who fight over the fate of Odysseus. The cunning Greek king and his loyal crew roamed the sea for years, going through infamous trials and tribulations as they made their way back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Although Poseidon tried to lead Odysseus to his demise, furious with him for blinding his beloved son, The Cyclops Polyphemus, Athena kept going against his will assisting Odysseus out of difficult situations, until he made it safely home back to his palace and faithful wife, Penelope.
The Athenians loved their patron Goddess like no other deity. During the Golden Age of Athens (460-430 BC), under the leadership of Pericles, they built the Parthenon atop the Acropolis hill, along with other glorious edifices; all of them famous through history in their own right as well: The Propylaea, The Erechtheion and The Temple of Athena Nike.
Famous architects Iktinos and Kallikrates took over the construction and the legendary sculptor Phidias was commissioned to create the colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena for the interior of the Parthenon, which was named Athena Parthenos (Athena The Virgin). Phidias also sculpted the gigantic bronze statue Athena Promachos (Athena standing in the front line in battle). This statue was placed between The Parthenon and The Propylaea.
The word Parthenon is also derived from the word ‘parthenos’ which means ‘virgin’ as per the epithet ‘Virgin’ for Athena. Once in four years, the Panathinaia Festival took place in honor of the Goddess. Although it also involved athletic events similar to the Olympic Games, the main event was the religious procession that made its way from The Parthenon to the town of Elefsis via Iera Odos (The Sacred Way); today, Iera Odos survives as a busy motorway between Athens and the historical town of Elefsis (also spelled Eleusis in English). This historic town is also the very site of the infamous Eleusinian Mysteries of antiquity that to this day, historians know very little about.
Over the millennia, The Parthenon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, has suffered devastation repeatedly and on a large scale. Other than being occupied by the Turks and turned into a mosque in the 1460s, it was also bombed by the Venetians in 1687, cruelly looted by Lord Elgin in 1806 and has even suffered substantial damage by overzealous Christian priests who destroyed the depictions on the friezes that seemed indecent in their eyes.
In order to graphically illustrate the Parthenon back in its glory days as well as its demise through the millennia, I’m including below a remarkable video by the Greek Ministry of Culture. I hope you’ll also enjoy therein, a classic poem by the legendary philhellene, Lord Byron. The great romantic poet’s imagination has captured the wrath of Athena (Minerva, in Roman) further to the merciless destruction of her sacred temple. For the benefit of poetry lovers, I’m also including a link to the whole poem, written in Athens in 1811 by the great British poet.