The Legend of Homer – A special guest post by author Luciana Cavallaro

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to welcome back a special guest and fellow historical fantasy author, Luciana Cavallaro.

Luciana is something of an expert on Homer and the Trojan War, and she always has some fascinating thoughts on the subject.

So, sit back, relax, and let yourself be transported back to the age of heroes…

Homer

I’d like to thank, Adam, for inviting me to be on his blog and to talk about my favourite topic, ancient history. I am very grateful to Adam as well, as this is the second time I’ve been invited to write a guest post for his amazing and informative blog.

With the constant turmoil in the world, whether it’s acts of terrorism, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s threats of war, and the barbarous nature of inhumanity, it goes to show how history repeats itself. This blog post isn’t a “doom and gloom” article, but more of a commentary on the early recorded history of war that birthed western literature.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could meet and interview their literary heroes, to learn what drove their passion and pursuit for telling stories? I often wonder what it would be like to sit down and have a chat with Homer, the bard responsible for western literature and legendary tales. I’d like to think our conversation would be an intellectual discourse, but truth told, I’d be blubbering idiot. The brain would freeze and I’d be tongue-tied, and starry-eyed!

Homer_and_his_Guide_(1874)

There’s not a lot of information about Homer, though speculation suggests he was born around the 8th Century BCE. As to where, no one is sure, except it was a Greek city in western Turkey. There was one element that most historians agree on was that he was blind, and that he was injured in a war he had fought in. This lends credence to the graphic and accurate descriptions he gave in the fight scenes in the Iliad. From the various sources I’ve read, each have commented he must have experienced war to able to describe the layout of camps, strategies in fighting, and the terrible injuries inflicted.

However, historians questioned as to whether he was the “author” of The Iliad and The Odyssey. One main reason for the conjecture are the two different styles: The Iliad is more formal and theatrical, while the language in The Odyssey reflected the day-to-day speech pathos and likened to a novel. The other is that the stories, in particular The Iliad, was passed down from bard to bard, and Homer is a pronoun for “bard”. This premise led historians to believe Homer did not exist, and as mentioned, there isn’t a lot of information as to who he was, where he was born, etc.

Achilles and Ajax dice – Louvre

Ancient Greek writing didn’t appear until the eighth century BCE, the time when a scribe wrote Homer’s stories while the bard performed them. Odds are, there weren’t any “biographies” written about many of the individuals prior to this period, with the exception of those nations who kept records of accounts, contracts, and pacts.

If Homer were here, I’d ask him whether he composed both stories. I believe he created both tales. As with most storytelling, an author’s experience grows and changes as they write more stories, so why can’t both epic tales differ from one another?

Another question I’d ask is how much of The Iliad is based on fact. It is suggested that the story is based on a number of wars that happened in the region over many centuries, and the history of these wars has been passed down from generation to generation. Homer then compiled these events into a single story. As a fiction writer, this makes sense, and who’s to say it didn’t happen that way? We take our inspiration from real events and weave a story. Why not Homer?

The Death of Priam – Louvre

Again, there are arguments for and against the validity of the events in the story. Why? Lack of evidence. Or is there? Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman and amateur archaeologist, proved otherwise. His tactics were less than honourable, damaging the layers at the site of Ilios and ousting Frank Calvert, who had partial rights to Hissarlik. Regardless, Schliemann believed in the story and set out to prove Troy existed. He did find Troy but it wasn’t until decades later that evidence of a war, skeletal remains and an underwater tunnel were uncovered. From later excavations, archaeologists have determined the site of Troy had endured a number of wars over many centuries. This supports the fact that the story of The Iliad was a compilation from historical events.

This leads to my next question, if I could ask Homer: did any of the characters in story exist? Very probable. In a Hittite text, around the time of the Trojan War, circa 1300 BCE, it mentions a city named Wilusa, which translates to Ilios, and a king called Alexander, better known as Paris. It was also the Hittite texts where ‘Achaean’, the name Homer used for the Greeks, was identified. Coincidence? I don’t think so, and certainly makes the history of Ilios and the story more interesting.

I do believe myths and legends stem from a basis of truth. I first read The Iliad about 20 years ago and fell in love with the story, the characters and the legend. I read fiction and non-fiction books, watched documentaries, and these have whetted my appetite to learn more. Homer is the reason why I started writing Historical Fiction/Mythology.

I’ve a new book due for publication on the 1st October, and I’d like you to join me on my first virtual book launch. For details, click here:

Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, likes to meander between contemporary life to the realms of mythology and history. Luciana has always been interested in Mythology and Ancient History but her passion wasn’t realised until seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. From then on, she was inspired to write Historical Fantasy.

She has spent many lessons promoting literature and the merits of ancient history. Today, you will still find Luciana in the classroom, teaching ancient history and promoting literature. To keep up-to-date with her ramblings, ahem, that is meaningful discourse, subscribe to her mailing list at http://www.luccav.com.

Connect with Luciana:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Luciana-Cavallaro-Writer/304218202959903?ref=hl

Twitter https://twitter.com/ClucianaLuciana

Author Luciana Cavallaro

I would like to thank Luciana for taking the time to share her thoughts and research about Homer, the site of Troy, and the Trojan War with us today. I always love hearing from her, and I can’t agree more that every legend has a base in truth.

Also, as archaeologists, we can’t help but find Heinrich Schliemann’s methods deplorable, but there is no denying that he found the most likely site for Troy. The fact that he did so using the text of Homer makes it a pretty great story in and of itself!

Always a hot topic, and certainly one I can’t get enough of.

Be sure to check out Luciana’s website and sign-up for her mailing list so you can get all the great blogs she writes and news on her books.

I highly recommend Luciana’s books, and if you have the time, definitely sign-up to check out her virtual book launch on Facebook by CLICKING HERE. If the time works for you, it should be a fantastic event!

Thank you again to Luciana, and thank you to all of you for reading.

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A Journey to Hell with Special Guest, Glyn Iliffe

Glyn website banner

Greetings everyone!

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.

Voyage of Odysseus_Cover_e-book (2)

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!

Teiresias speaks to Odysseus

Teiresias speaks to Odysseus

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.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

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 hopelessness.’

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!

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

Glyn Author Photo

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.

Connect with him on Facebook, or visit his website at www.glyniliffe.com

Be sure to check out The Adventures of Odysseus books at any of the following outlets:

Amazon (UK) – Amazon (US) – Waterstones – Barnes & Noble – Book Depository – Kobo

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!

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