Writing Ancient Religion


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.

A relief of Demeter at the Elefsina site museum

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?

The Door to Hades – part of the sanctuary of Elefsis, where the Elefsinian Mysteries were carried out

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.

Mars – Roman God of War

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.

The Pythia

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.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

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.

Kylix from Delphi showing Apollo himself pouring a libation

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.


The Hero’s Journey in Ancient Myth and Storytelling

Today I want to talk about a book that all writers and lovers of history and mythology should have on their shelf: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

Every time I pick up this book, I’m struck by the truth of what Campbell says. I think of all of the stories that have struck a chord with me over the years, and the things they have in common. Campbell says:

“The archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision… The hero… has died as a modern man – he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed therefore… is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lessons he has learned of life renewed.”

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Joseph Campbell, Third Edition, 1973)

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed (by Alan Lee)

If you stop to look at storytelling, past and present, you can indeed see the recurring themes and archetypes of myth. They’re everywhere. And this applies not only to western literature, but to storytelling across time, across cultures.

In studying Greek, Roman and Celtic literature and mythology, medieval and Arthurian romance, I’ve noticed that I’m drawn to certain elements. It’s not just because of the way these stories are told, or the language the writers or poets used. Let’s remember that the beauty of language is often lost in translation.

No. What draws me into these stories are common elements that appeal to something deep within my psyche, the blood in my veins, the fibre of my muscles, the dreams at the back of my mind. My inner youth, adventurer, lover, warrior, and wise man, all yearn for the stories that are food for the soul.

Without that food I begin to starve.

Such is the power of storytelling.

Sir Galahad upon his quest

The Hero with a Thousand Faces takes you into a world of great depth, of ideas and examples. There is too much to be able to do it justice in one blog post. However, in the book there is a chart of the Hero’s Journey that I believe can be infinitely useful to a writer and lifelong student of history and mythology.

Oftentimes, writers can get stuck, feel as though they’ve written themselves into a corner and are not sure how to get out of it. Perhaps they’re not sure where to turn next, which path their protagonist should take. Other times, a writer will wonder whether a certain path in the story will appeal to the reader, or else put them off so much that they go off in search of another adventure.

Campbell’s chart of the Hero’s Journey is an excellent point of reference, a tool or weapon to help a writer to get out of the traps that can halt the creative process.

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Joseph Campbell, p.245-246, Third Edition, 1973)

I think it prudent here to quote Campbell on what the journey entails:

“The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again – if the powers have remained unfriendly to him – his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).”

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Joseph Campbell, Third Edition, 1973)

As I read this, all the stories that I’ve ever loved flash through my mind. I see heroes such as Arthur, Frodo and even Luke Skywalker, taken from their quiet worlds and cast into the unknown with the aid of such legendary characters as Merlin, Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others.

Luke Skywalker receives his father’s sword from and Obi Wan Kenobi

Often, a hero experiences an event that thrusts him into the adventure. I think of Odysseus being ordered to go to war at Troy and leave his wife and baby behind, or in the Mabinogi when Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, goes into the otherworld of Annwn. Jason confronts Pelias and ends up on an expedition to find the Golden Fleece, the proposed price for getting back his father’s throne. There are so many examples. And often times, there is a sword: Arthur’s Excalibur, Luke’s father’s lightsaber or Bilbo’s sword, Sting, which goes to Frodo.

The tests are often what make up the bulk of the story which takes place in unknown realms. There are helpers in the form of other people, gods or animals along the way. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo has the help of Aragorn (a hero on his own journey – a journey within a journey) and the rest of the Fellowship – elves, dwarves and others. Arthur has his knights who each have their own adventures. Theseus has Ariadne whose aid provides him with the key to the labyrinth. Jason gets aid from the blind prophet Phineas who tells him how to reach the Golden Fleece.

Calypso and Odysseus by Sir Wiliam Russell Flint

When the hero reaches what Campbell calls the ‘nadir of the mythological round’ there is an ordeal and reward. Odysseus passes through death in the form of Scylla and Charybdis to be washed up on the shore of the goddess Calypso’s island. He spends time there, loved by the goddess, and regains his strength before embarking on the final stages of his journey.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Other themes at the ‘nadir’ are the attainment, by theft or gift, of the elixir that is sought by the hero. This could be the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the promise of a return home in the case of Odysseus. The promise of a healing of the land, of body, of spirit, is in the hero’s sights. But the journey is not yet over.

More challenges emerge before the hero can cross that threshold once more to get back into the known realms. Arthur must face Mordred, Odysseus must still reach Ithaca before destroying the suitors and taking back his home. Luke must escape the Death Star to destroy it in a final battle.

Arthur receives Excalibur

Once the final confrontations are overcome or dealt with, the hero achieves peace for himself and his realm, an overall healing of wounds and righting of wrongs that gives way to a golden time. If the hero dies in the attempt, he goes on to a better place and his example will be one that inspires future generations (e.g. Arthur going to Avalon).

You can take almost any story from any culture and apply the elements Campbell mentions.

The elements of the hero’s journey are universal.

Because these archetypes, these themes, are a part of our storytelling tradition, we often include them automatically in our writing without thinking about it.

Frodo and Gandalf (picture by Alan Lee)

But a writer often is the hero on a journey, and doesn’t always know where the road will lead. We need helpers, a sword (or pen!), and certainly divine help and inspiration from the Muse should not be shunned. (Just read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more on that!)

Sometimes writers need a guide like Joseph Campbell to put one back on track. And that’s ok!

Odysseus and Arthur, Luke and Frodo – they all had help. So did Pwyll and Yvain, Herakles and Jason. It’s not cowardly to receive aid. The true test comes when one decides what to do with the aid provided.

Whether I’m writing the first words, or flipping the first pages, of a new story, I relish the adventure to come, the trials and tribulations, learning from the unknown, and gathering the courage to slay my own dragons.

I like to think that that is what being human is all about. If you look at it a certain way, you’ll see that our stories are more a part of us than most people think. They’re not whimsical flights of fancy that have no real relation to us as human beings. They’re a deep part of us, and if we ignore or forget those stories, we lose a bit of ourselves.

Sir Percival and the Grail

Thanks for reading!

If you would like to find out more, here are a few places to start:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Power of Myth – A conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (filmed at Skywalker Ranch). This is also available as an audio book or DVD.

Star Wars: The Magic of Myth – This is a fantastic book, not only for Star Wars fans but everyone with an interest in mythology. George Lucas was friends with Joseph Campbell and adhered closely to the ideas of the hero’s journey in the creation of his brilliant story ‘A long time ago… In a galaxy far, far away…’

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – in this fantastic book, historical fiction author, Steven Pressfield, talk about writing, Resistance, and doing the work of the Muse. A must-read for any creative person!


Ancient Nemea – The History, Archaeology, and Mythology

valley of Nemea

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.

Herakles and the Nemean Lion

Herakles and 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.

Opheltes being killed by the snake

Opheltes being killed by the snake

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.

View of the Temple of Zeus from the surrounding vineyards

View of the Temple of Zeus from the surrounding vineyards

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.

Ancient Nemea from the air

Ancient Nemea from the air

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.

Temple of Zeus - before some of the columns were re-erected

Temple of Zeus – before some of the columns were re-erected

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.

Model of the site, in the museum, showing the long altar in front of the temple of Zeus

Model of the site, in the museum, showing the long altar in front of the temple of Zeus

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!

"Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?"

“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 sacred cypress grove in the sanctuary

The sacred cypress grove in 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.

Glastonbury Festival's tent city

Glastonbury Festival’s tent city

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.

The stadium of Nemea (Wikimedia Commons)

The stadium of Nemea (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The locker room of Nemea where athletes prepared for competition

The locker room of Nemea where athletes prepared for competition

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.

The tunnel leading from the locker room into the stadium

The tunnel leading from the locker room into the stadium

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.

The starting line in the stadium

The starting line in the stadium

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.

Ancient Runners

Ancient Runners

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.

A crown of wild celery - the victory wreath of winners at the Nemean Games

A crown of wild celery – the victory wreath of winners at the Nemean Games

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.

The temple of Zeus at Nemea after some of the columns were re-erected in 2013

The temple of Zeus at Nemea after some of the columns were re-erected in 2013

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!

CLICK HERE to find out more about taking part in the modern games.

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.

Countryside around Nemea

Countryside around Nemea

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.


The Links Between History and Mythology – A Guest Post by Luciana Cavallaro

Greece 2006 076

Today I have a special guest on the blog.

Luciana Cavallaro is the author of a series of mythological retellings from the perspectives of some fascinating women in Greek myth.

When I read her book, The Curse of Troy, I knew that I wanted to have her write a guest post for Writing the Past. Luciana has a wonderfully unique style, and she gives these accursed women of Greek myth a voice that you may not have heard before.

So, without further ado, a big welcome to author, Luciana Cavallaro!

First, I’d like to thank Adam for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’ve been following Adam’s blog for years now and enjoy reading about the Roman history, expansion and legacy they’ve left behind and learning about King Arthur and Medieval England. The latter is not one of my strongest or favourite periods of history, but I do enjoy reading Adam’s articles. I also want to apologise to Adam. He asked me last year to be a guest blogger and at the time I was finishing up my book and then time got away from me.

Let’s get into it

I’m a bit of a fan of mythology, in particular Greek myth, but I’m not an expert or purport to be one. I love the stories, learned a great deal from them and continue to do so. What I particularly enjoy are the links between the myths and historical fact.

Before I get into that, let’s address what mythology is. Here’s a dictionary meaning:

Mythology is a body of myths, especially one associated with a particular culture, person, etc.  (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1989)

I prefer Joseph Campbell’s explanation:

There is a mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you’re a part. And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society.

(Interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, 1986)

Myths are cultural as is history. If one digs (pardon the pun) deep enough, there is a correlation between the story and fact. Let’s take Jason of the Argonauts and his search for the Golden Fleece. In the Republic of Georgia, once annexed by Russia, the fleece of a sheep was used to trap golden grains dug from the river, or placed in the river banks and used in the same way.

Here’s a great article on this: Legend of the Golden Fleece was REAL: Greek myth originated near the Black Sea where miners used sheepskin to filter gold from mountain streams, geologists claim

I also watched a documentary of an Australian photo journalist who was trying to find the cities Alexander the Great founded in the Middle East. He watched Afghan miners use this technique to find gold in the riverbeds 4000 years on.

The journey from Jason’s home of Iolkos (Thessaly) to Georgia some distance away was dangerous. It is possible the story of the skills and craftsmanship of the Colchians who developed smelting and casting metals for agriculture and making jewellery found their way to Greece. This was something the ancient Greeks wanted, and the gold.

Jason and Pelias

“Jason Pelias Louvre K127” by Underworld Painter – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another is the great story of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, which is a famous tourist site, and I did get to see. It is massive just as Homer stated. The lofty walls the Greeks couldn’t penetrate are there, and what is left is tall and slopes inwards. Hittite texts confirmed the site of Ilios, which they called Wilusa and identified Alaksandu/Alexander as one of the city’s kings. Alexander was the Greeks’ name for Paris. The texts also mention an invading force from the west, Ahhiyawa, that closely resembles Homer’s name for the Greeks, Achaeans. What historians have concluded is Homer’s story is a collective memory of the various invasions on Troy over centuries and its eventual downfall.

Hittite Tablet

Hittite tablet recounting the events of the fall of Troy by Unknown – Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The fact that the site of Troy exists, as does Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon, does give credence to the mythologies. But like all stories, you can’t let facts get in the way of telling a good tale.

I do believe the more we delve into the myths, the more facts we’ll find in history. As with the current series I’m writing on my blog Eternal Atlantis, on the Atlantis myth, I believe such a place did exist. Like Homer’s Iliad, the enduring legend of Atlantis is a conglomeration of memories and oral histories to explain the rise and fall of a mighty empire. Look through the timeline of history and you will find many periods of great empires and their demise, either through war or a natural disaster.

Kircher's 1675 map of the world after the Great Flood. The location of Atlantis is marked in the Atlantic Ocean. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Kircher’s 1675 map of the world after the Great Flood. The location of Atlantis is marked in the Atlantic Ocean. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Myths, like all stories, have morals and a message to relate. One day, I hope we will be smarter and take heed of these so we don’t keep repeating these transgressions. In a hundred or thousand years to come, people will question our mythology. What mythology will we leave behind?

I’d love to know your thoughts on the veracity of myths in our history.

Visit Luciana's website at: http://luccav.com/blog/

Visit Luciana’s website at: http://luccav.com/blog/

I’d like to thank Luciana for taking the time to write this fascinating post for us. I’m so jealous of her trip to Troy, a place which I have wanted to visit for a long time. Ah, someday…

Mythology is truly fascinating, and there is a lifetime and more of stories for us to enjoy and learn from.

If you enjoy mythology as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to check out Luciana’s book, Accursed Women, or pick up one of the many short stories she has out. She also has a new book entitled Search for the Golden Serpent which I’m looking forward to reading.

Also, be sure to sign up for her E-bulletin so that you can receive her very interesting blog posts to your e-mail. By signing up, you’ll receive The Curse of Troy for FREE!

I always look forward to reading her posts as they are a fantastic escape from the everyday. The blog series on Atlantis is titantic!

Please leave any questions or comments for Luciana in the comments below, and, once again, thank you for reading…

Check out Accursed Women by Luciana Cavallaro

Check out Accursed Women by Luciana Cavallaro



The World of Children of Apollo – Part VI – Cumae and the Sibyl

Apollo and the Sibyl

Apollo and the Sibyl

…from her shrine the Sibyl of Cumae sang her fearful riddling prophecies, her voice booming in the cave as she wrapped the truth in darkness, while Apollo shook the reins upon her in her frenzy and dug the spurs into her flanks. The madness passed. The wild words died upon her lips… (Aenied, Book VI)

In this series of posts on The World of Children of Apollo, we have been through the sands and cities of Roman North Africa, trod the marble-clad streets of Imperial Rome, and wandered the lush, ancient land of Etruria. We have met the imperial family and had a hint of the dangers that can come of an association with them.

In this post, we set off on a slightly different path into the realm of mystery and legend, and visit the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, Apollo’s ancient oracle on the Italian peninsula. It is in the cave of the Sibyl that Lucius Metellus Anguis learns of a cryptic prophecy concerning his future.



Legend has it that Cumae was founded by ancient Greeks as early as 1050 B.C. and was, according to Strabo, the oldest of the Greek colonies on mainland Italy or Sicily. Cumae survived many years of war and attack until, under the Empire, it was seen as a quiet, country town in contrast to the very fashionable settlement of Baiae nearby. The acropolis of Cumae is a mass of rock rising two-hundred and sixty-nine feet above the seashore which lies one hundred yards away. The acropolis contains three levels of caves with many branches, and it is within these caves that the Cumaean Sibyl had her seat.

Cumaean Acropolis and Cave

Cumaean Acropolis and Cave

One can approach the rock from the south-east. It is steep on all sides with remnants of the original Greek fortifications. The acropolis is an ancient place, a place where myth and legend can, if you manage to block out modernity, come alive. Within the acropolis stood the Temple of Apollo, God of Prophecy. Tradition has it that Daedalus himself built the temple. This was restored by the Romans who had great reverence for Apollo and the Sibyl who had prophesied the future of Rome to the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in the Sibylline Books.

Aeneas and the Sibyl

Aeneas and the Sibyl

As the story goes, Tarquinius would not pay the Sibyl her extortionate price for all nine books. The Sibyl burned three and yet he refused to pay. She burned another three and the king relented, paying the original price for the remaining three books. A lesson there, to be sure! The Sibylline Books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill until c. 80 B.C. when it burned down. The books were so valuable, having been referred to in times of great crisis for Rome, that a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies was undertaken in all corners of the Empire. Augustus finally had the prophecies moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where our main character, Lucius Metellus Anguis spends much time in Children of Apollo.

Entrance to the Cave

Entrance to the Cave

But who was the Sibyl? Her person is surrounded by the haze of legend. She was mortal, but she lived for a thousand years. In the Aeneid, it was the Sibyl who guided Aeneas to the underworld so that he could visit his dead father, Anchises, in Hades. Her story is a sad one too. When Apollo met her, the god offered her a wish in exchange for her virginity. The Sibyl then picked up a handful of sand and asked that she live as many years as the number of grains of sand she held in her palm. The old adage, ‘Careful what you wish for,’ certainly rings true in the Sibyl’s case. Tragically, she did not wish for eternal youth as well, and as a result, over the centuries, her young, once-beautiful body withered until all that remained was her prophetic voice. In Children of Apollo, this is a voice that Lucius Metellus Anguis will not soon forget.

The Sibyl's Inner Chamber

The Sibyl’s Inner Chamber

The traditions of ancient Greece and Rome are of full of tales of tragedy, choices wrongly-made, beauty, love, hate and deception. The tales are heroic and terrifying, inspiring and thought-provoking. And oftentimes, there is a physical place associated with a particular tale, a place you can visit and hear the voices of the past. You can stand in a spot where once a Trojan hero may have stood, as well as emperors and Caesars, or common soldiers. It may be a place or tale that shook the foundations of the world, of a people, or of a solitary individual trying to find his way.

For Lucius Metellus Anguis, the Sibyl’s cave is a place that will haunt him for a long time to come.


Looking to the Light from Inside the Cave

This is the final post in this series, The World of Children of Apollo.

I hope you enjoyed them, and if your curiosity is piqued, be sure to pick up a copy at the Books tab by clicking HERE.

If you have already read Children of Apollo (and reviews are very welcome!) you can continue the adventure with Lucius Metellus Anguis in Killing the Hydra which is also available.

See you again soon, and thanks for reading!



Mythologia – Retelling the Myths


“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.

ancient Bellerophon

Bellerophon and Pegasus battle the Chimera

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.

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in Clash of the Titans

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in Clash of the Titans

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.

Apollo slays the Python on Mt. Parnassus

Apollo slays the Python on Mt. Parnassus

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.

The Gods

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.

Chariot of the Son (Final)


Chariot of the Son – The First in a New Series

Chariot of the Sun

Today, I’m happy to announce the first book in a new series from Eagles and Dragons Publishing.

It’s called Chariot of the Son, and it is a retelling of the Phaethon myth from Greek mythology. But, before I talk about the story, I’d like to mention the series.

I’ve always enjoyed Greek mythology, and as I’ve grown older and begun to write my own stories, I’ve realized that it would be wonderful to retell many of these fabulous myths in a way that would allow us to get to know these gods, goddesses, and heroes on a more personal level.

There are several myths I would like to delve into, and Chariot of the Son is the first in what I am calling the Mythologia series.

The goal with the Mythologia series is to re-create a mythical world in which the reader can suspend all disbelief and experience these epic tales in a new and exciting way, right alongside the immortals and demigods whom we have read about for ages.

Helios - The Sun God

Helios – The Sun God

This series is also a lot of fun for me to write because anything goes; I don’t need to be constrained by historical timelines or detail as much as with other series. I get ideas from the seeds and scattered mentions by authors in various texts over the ages, and then let my imagination run wild.

Why the Phaethon myth?

I forget what I was researching at the time, but I came across a description of one version of the tale and remember being really saddened by it. I felt strongly that this was a story that I could tell, a story that would be extremely moving for readers of all ages.

There are a few versions of the Phaethon myth, including Hesiod’s Theogeny of the 8th or 7th century B.C., and versions by Apollodorus and Pausanias in the second century A.D. In these, Phaethon is often the son of Eos and Kephalos.

The Fall of Phaethon (Sebastiano Ricci 1659-1734)

The Fall of Phaethon (Sebastiano Ricci 1659-1734)

The version that touched me the most is by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – AD 17/18) from Book II of his work, Metamorphoses. This work is a continuous narrative of myths in fifteen books which has shaped much of our view of mythology to this day.

With Chariot of the Son, I wanted get to know the people who, unbeknownst to Phaethon, make up the family – Clymene and Helios, his parents; his sisters, the Heliades; as well as the Titan Prometheus, and more.

Also, knowing that the story has a tragic end, I wanted to get inside this young god’s heart and mind to try and experience the reasons why he wanted so much to drive the Sun’s chariot across the heavens.

I’m very excited about this book, and writing it was, quite literally, a dream-like experience.

Stepping into such an ancient world where these mythic characters experience things on a very human scale has been a wonderful experience that I hope you will enjoy.

And, now for the cover reveal for Chariot of the Son

Chariot of the Son (Final)

Many thanks to OctagonLab for the great cover which, quite suitably, blinds us with beauty and intensity.

Chariot of the Son will be released on December 7th, 2014.

However, you can read an excerpt of the book on the Eagles and Dragons Publishing website by clicking HERE.

If you like what you read, the book is available for pre-order for a special price from Amazon right now.

And remember, if you don’t have a Kindle, there are FREE Amazon Kindle reading apps that will allow you to read on your iPhone, iPad, Android phone, computer and other devices. Just click HERE!

I hope you enjoy this new book, and thank you for reading…

Chariot of the Son

Chariot of the Son is an epic retelling of the story of Phaethon from Greek Mythology.

During the age of Gods and Titans, Phaethon spends his days alone on the plains of Ethiopia, his only joy in life watching the Sun travel across the heavens.

When the sad bonds of his life are about to overwhelm him, a truth is revealed to Phaethon which sends him on a quest across the world to find his place in the order of things, and to unite the family that he has never known until now.

This is a story of love and loss, of deep yearning to find one’s place and to make a difference in a world where even the Gods can weep.


I am Hercules!

posterWell, not me. Rather, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is, in the latest film portraying this hero from Greek mythology.

The movie has been out for a month now, but I finally got to go and see it this week.

When I first saw the trailer back in the spring, I was blown away by what I saw. I couldn’t wait. But there is always that part of me that worries the trailer is as good as it gets. ‘What if the rest of the movie is complete rubbish?’ ‘What if I waste my time and money?’

If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you’ll know that I’m open to modern interpretations of ancient and medieval tales. Retellings of these stories are essential to their survival.

But there are always versions that go a little too far, savaging the story until it is unrecognizable.

Thankfully, Hercules was not among the latter. This was a fun movie, filled with some wonderful moments.

This year I’ve been really interested in the character of Herakles. If you haven’t read them, check out the posts on the old website about The Triumph of Herakles, and The Tragedy of Herakles. Come back to this post to comment on those if you have any thoughts.

Hercules (I’ll use the Roman name the movie uses for the rest of this post) is a wonderful, heroic, and tragic character for the ages. It’s no wonder his exploits have harnessed our imaginations for ages.

*I’m not going to spoil anything major from the movie, but if you don’t want to know anything beforehand, you may want to come back to this post after you’ve seen the movie.

First of all, Dwayne Johnson was great as Hercules. He became Hercules, and his screen presence was powerful to say the least.

But let’s get a couple of things out of the way first, things that bothered the historian in me.

For some strange reason, the filmmakers set the movie in the mid-4th century B.C. That’s odd, because that’s the time of Phillip and Alexander of Macedon (the Great). The date is sort of irrelevant (if not misleading) but it would have been cool to see it set in the mid-14th century B.C. when such events might have taken place.

If we were to put things on an historical timeline, Herakles’ labours took place before the voyage of the Argo which took place before the Trojan War. The remains of Troy VI, the level that is commonly assigned to the Trojan War, have been dated to about c.1275 B.C. So, the mid-14th century may be the correct period for Hercules’ story. That foggy, less documented era certainly would have played better with the epic mythology of Hercules in the movie.

I know, perhaps I’m splitting historical hairs, but another thing that got me was that King Eurystheus, Hercules’ cousin (they were both grandchildren of Perseus), was King of Athens in the movie. In mythology, Eurystheus was actually King of Tyrins and Mycenae. However, there is a later tradition linking Eurystheus and Athens, and that comes from Euripides’ play Heracleidae. In the play, Herakles’ children hide from Eurystheus in Athens, under the protection of Demophon, who actually was King of Athens. My only thought is that Athens may be more recognizable to the average movie-goer.

King Eurystheus hiding from Herakles

King Eurystheus hiding from Herakles

Lastly, the movie is not about the Twelve Labours of Hercules, though the trailer does give that impression. You see a couple of the labours, but the film focuses more on the tradition of Hercules being asked by the King of Thrace to help him fight his enemies.

In mythology, it is the Gods themselves who ask for Hercules’ help in fighting the Giants in Thrace; the Battle of the Gods and Giants is one of the most depicted battles in ancient art.

But there are a lot of gems in this film, references to parts of the Hercules tradition that are told in a way that it could be fact or fiction – his parentage including Zeus, the snakes sent by Hera into his crib when he was a baby, and a few of the labours. It’s all good stuff!

What I like are the companions who accompany Hercules in the movie. Each person is actually from the generation before the Trojan War, which makes their inclusion more or less accurate.

Death of Tydeus from Etruscan temple pediment Pyrgi, Italy

Death of Tydeus from Etruscan temple pediment Pyrgi, Italy

There is Tydeus, who was one of the Seven against Thebes, and the seer Amphiaraus, who was also among the Seven against Thebes, as well as King of Argos. He is brilliantly played by Ian McShane. Autolycus, Odysseus’ grandfather on his mother’s side is there, as well as Atalanta whose son was one of the Seven against Thebes and who, in some traditions, was the only woman to join Jason’s crew on the Argo.

Amphiaraus leaving for war

Amphiaraus leaving for war



Lastly, Iolaus is there with Hercules as the hero’s nephew, and this lines up with ancient traditions about that character.

I won’t go into more detail because I don’t want to spoil things, but this ensemble of ancient names only serves to enhance the character of Hercules and make the story more interesting.

Mosaic depicting Iolaus and Herakles

Mosaic depicting Iolaus and Herakles

However, I have to say that my favourite part of the movie was how Dwayne Johnson and the writers explored the tragic side of Hercules. The hero is haunted by his past, the actions that led the gods to command him to carry out the Twelve Labours for Eurystheus. I go through this in The Tragedy of Herakles.

I’ve enjoyed some of Dwayne Johnson’s previous performances, but credit to him, he really got into this role and played it beautifully. Apparently, he isolated himself for training for 8 months in Hungary so that he could get deep into the person of Hercules.

I’d say he succeeded.

Some people will undoubtedly slam the movie for many things, but if you like mythology, and if the story of Hercules appeals to you, you should definitely see this movie. It has action, drama, laughs, and most importantly of all, it brings ancient storytelling to life before your eyes!

Having fun with history!

Having fun with history!

And anything that gets people interested in history and mythology is a good thing.

Thank you for reading!

If you’ve seen Hercules, I’d like to hear what you liked or didn’t like about the movie.

Tell us in the comments below.

Watch the Official Movie Trailer for Hercules!


Argonautica – Part III – Love and the Forging of a Hero

The ArgoIt’s been a while since Part II of the Argonautica series, and this is the first on the new website. If you have not already done so, you may wish to read Part I and Part II first.

Today, we have an epic post.

Jason and the Argonauts have almost reached Colchis after their visit to the blind seer, Phineus. They have successfully navigated the Cyanean Rocks, using a white dove as Phineus suggested.

But the journey is far from over and the gods are watching.

They come to a desert island called Thynias, where Apollo appears to them, but does not speak. It is as though the Argonauts are being reminded of their place. They are awed by Apollo and keep their heads bowed. When he is gone, they build an altar to him.

Then they sail on to the land of the Mariandyni where they recount their tale to the king, Lycus, who is pleased that they defeated his enemies the Bebrycians. Lycus adds his son, Dascylus, to Jason’s crew. Lycus says that he will build a temple to Castor and Polydeuces for defeating the Bebrycian king, Amycus.

This is all well and good, but there is an odd episode before they leave the Mariandyni. Idmon, the son of Abas, one of Jason’s soothsayers, is killed by a huge white-tusked boar and promptly dies in his comrades’ arms. The Argonauts mourn for three days, during which Tiphys, son of Hagnias, dies of sickness. All of this sudden loss sends the Argonauts into despair.

The goddess Hera steps in to inspire the men once more and they finally set out after twelve days. They then reach the river Thermodon in the land of the Amazons.

There is reference to Herakles’ labour there but they do not wish to linger as they do not want battle with the fierce Amazons, those war-loving daughters of Ares.

They row on past the land of the iron people known as the Chalybes, and then past the lands of the Mossynocci who, Apollonius tells us, have an odd habit of performing private acts in public, and what are normally public acts in private.

Apollonius enjoys telling us about all of these peoples, places and regional traditions, but the Argo presses on.

Then they come to the Island of Ares where deadly bronze birds are said to attack anyone who approaches. The Argonauts remember Herakles’ labour in the Stymphalian swamps and how he defeated similar birds, not with bow and arrows, but by making a loud clamour. So, they don their crested helmets and shake their heads and spears and yell so that they can land on the island.

But why would they land there? Phineus had told them they should, and this is why…

Origins of the Fleece

On this island are stranded the four sons of Phrixus – Cytissorus, Phrontis, Melas, and Argus.

Phrixus, of course, is the one who had come to Colchis on the golden ram in order to escape the murder of himself and his sister, Helle, in Orchomenos in Greece. The ram, sent by their divine mother to save them, flew over the sea with the two of them on its back. Along the way, Helle fell into the sea and drowned. That is where the ‘Hellespont’ gets its name.

Phrixus, Golden Ram, Helle drowning

Phrixus, Helle, and the Ram

Aeetes received Phrixus and treated him kindly, giving his daughter, Chalciope, in marriage to Phrixus. In thanks for his finding a safe exile, Phrixus sacrificed the golden ram to Zeus, the protector of strangers, and gave the Golden Fleece to Aeetes in thanks.

Phrixus and Chalciope’s sons were returning to Orchomenos in Greece to reclaim their father’s birthright when their ship was wrecked on the island of Ares.

The Argonauts see the gods’ hand in this and the truth of Phineus’ words, and the sons of Phrixus become part of the crew. They sacrifice to Ares in a roofless temple where the Amazons used to pray.

Jason tells the sons of Phrixus what they plan to do and the latter express their fear of Aeetes.

“My friends, our strength, so far as it avails, shall never cease to help you, not one whit, when need shall come. But Aeetes is terribly armed with deadly ruthlessness; wherefore exceedingly do I dread this voyage… Nay to seize the Fleece in spite of Aeetes is no easy task; so huge a serpent keeps guard round and about it, deathless and sleepless, which Earth herself brought forth on the sides of the Caucasus…” (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica)

In reading this, and meeting the sons of Phrixus, I found it strange that in all the retellings of The Argonautica that I’ve watched or read, there was never any mention or hint of the actual origins of the Golden Fleece. I think the story of Phrixus is fascinating and tragic. It makes a fantastic story.

The Argonauts are getting close now, the stage is set.

They sail from the Island of Ares until they see the Caucasian mountains rising into the sky where Prometheus is bound to the rocks and the eagle eats his liver anew every day. The Argonauts see the eagle flying high in the clouds and they can hear the “bitter cry of Prometheus as his liver was being torn away.”

The Caucasus of modern Georgia, land of Colchis

The Caucasus of modern Georgia, land of Colchis

This approach to Colchis, with the cries of the tortured Titan ringing over the land, sets a mood of danger as they approach their goal.

That night, they reach the river Phasis and they come near to the city of Aea and the Grove of Ares where the Fleece hangs on the oak tree, in the shadow of the Caucasus.

Jason pours libations of honey into the river and of wine onto the Earth, and offerings to the gods of Colchis, and the spirits of their fallen comrades.

Piety and gratitude, are ever important in this tale.

And this is something that the movies often ignore. In fact, movies and other modern adaptations of this tale show the heroes as defiant of the gods, but that is the complete opposite of how it is in these ancient stories.

It’s a little sad, in my opinion that modern interpretations feel the need to dismiss the gods, or make the heroes defiant of them, in order to make the tales more palatable to modern audiences.

The involvement and honouring of the gods, I think, makes these ancient stories richer and more interesting.

The Argonauts have finally landed and they discuss whether or not to approach Aeetes with kind words, or force. This is where Book II ends.

Enter the Goddesses

In Book III of The Argonautica, the theme changes to one of Love. This is what sets this epic apart from all others in the ancient world to that point.

Apollonius begins book three by calling on Erato now, the muse of lyric poetry, or love poetry.

“Come now, Erato, stand by my side, and say next how Jason brought back the Fleece to Iolcus aided by the love of Medea. For thou sharest the power of Cypris, and by thy love-cares dost charm unwedded maidens, wherefore to thee too is attached a name that tells of love.”

Erato, Muse of Love Poetry

Erato, Muse of Love Poetry

Jason and the Argonauts are waiting in ambush for the Colchians, but the goddesses Hera and Athena feel that they need to do something to help them. Aeetes will not be easily fooled or beaten.

However, even Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Strategy, is at a loss as to what to do. So, Hera suggests they go to Aphrodite (Cypris) for help.

Their plan is to have Aphrodite ask her son, Eros, to cause Aeetes’ daughter, Medea, to fall in love with Jason. Hera believes Medea will help Jason, and so they go to Aphrodite’s palace, built for her by her husband, Hephaestus.

This episode provides the listener/reader with a rare and intimate glimpse of Goddess of Love.

Hera and Athena find Aphrodite sitting alone on a chair facing the door of her palace.

“…she all alone was sitting within, on an inlaid seat facing the door. And her white shoulders on each side were covered with the mantle of her hair and she was parting it with a golden comb and about to braid up the long tresses; but when she saw the goddesses before her, she stayed and called them within…”                                                                                                                                         

Aphrodite is suspicious of their visit, but Hera says that they are genuinely fearful for Jason and want to help him. Jason, of course, helped Hera across the river when she was disguised as an old crone.

Aphrodite is moved by Hera’s supplication and says she will help, but she says that her son, Eros, is disobedient and that he may not listen.

This is a stunningly human scene in which Aphrodite, one of the most revered goddesses, is now a mother fretting over her disobedient child.

Aphrodite and Eros

Aphrodite and Eros

Of course, one of the most appealing things of the gods of ancient Greece was that people could relate to them. They too struggled with emotions and other very human situations.

Aphrodite goes in search of Eros on Mount Olympus and finds him throwing dice with Ganymedes in the orchard of Zeus.

Eros comes across as very cheeky, feisty, and even quite naughty. He is in the middle of, erm…sorry, ‘fleecing’ Ganymedes at dice. In fact, when Ganymedes leaves upon Aphrodite’s arrival, the goddess chides her son for cheating!

She tells him what she wants him to do and in return promises him a magical ball that was Zeus’ when he was a child. The ball, which looks like a shooting star when it is thrown, seals the deal, and Eros rushes out of the gates of Olympus all the way to Colchis with his bow and arrows.

Aeetes, King of the Colchians

After further discussion, Jason has decided that he will go with Telamon, Augeias, and the sons of Phrixus to the palace of Aeetes to speak with the king.

Jason trusts in the ordinance of Zeus that protects strangers.

The route they take is very interesting. They cross the Plain of Circe where willows and osiers grow in lines. In the branches of the trees hang the corpses of dead Colchians. Apollonius tells us here of an unusual custom of the Colchians that they do not burn or bury their dead beneath mounds. Rather, they wrap their dead in ox hide and suspend them in trees far from the city.

It must have been a grisly site for the Jason as he made his way, no doubt his gut full of fear already, to the palace of Aeetes.

But Jason is loved by the Gods, and Hera covers him and his companions with a mist so that they arrive safely at the entrance to Aeetes’ palace. Apollonius’ description of the palace relates the wealth of Aeetes; there is even a court with four fountains spouting milk, wine, oil, and water.

Jason sees Medea for the first time as she is going from chamber to chamber looking for her sister, Chalciope.



Thus enters one of the most tragic and terrifying characters of the ancient Greek world.

Medea cries out when she sees the newcomers, and Chalciope and others come running to see the returned sons of Phrixus. There are joyful tears as Chalciope greets her sons.

Then Aeetes enters with his queen, Eidyia.

Among this confusion, Eros passes unseen into their midst and stands near Jason with is bow and arrow ready. He shoots Medea and “speechless amazement seized her soul.”

“…the bolt burnt deep down in the maiden’s heart like a flame; and ever she kept darting bright glances straight up at Aeson’s son, and within her breast her heart panted fast through anguish, all remembrance left her, and her soul melted with sweet pain.”

 A banquet is set and Aeetes questions the sons of Phrixus, asking them why they are back and who they bring with them. Argus answers before the gathering, telling of their shipwreck on the Island of Ares and how Jason saved them.

Argus then relates the task set for Jason by Pelias, and how the hero has come with the “mightiest heroes of all Achaea” to ask for the Fleece.

Aeetes is told that in return for the Fleece, Jason and his men will help him to defeat his bitter enemies, the Sauromatae (people of the Amazons and Scythians).

Argus tells Aeetes that the Argonauts are the “sons and grandsons of the immortals”!

But Aeetes is full of rage and wrath in his heart and accuses the sons of Phrixus and Chalciope of bringing the strangers there so that they might steel his throne. Argus’ own anger rises and before anything happens, Jason steps up to speak.

His words calm the situation but Aeetes is mulling over whether to kill them on the spot, or to set Jason a trial of strength, a task that he has completed himself.

An Impossible Task

Aeetes tells Jason that he must harness two fire-breathing bulls with bronze hooves, plow the field of Ares with an adamant plow, and then sow it with the teeth of a serpent which will then grow into armed, earthborn men whom Jason has to slay.

If Jason does this, Aeetes says he will give him the Fleece.

Chalciope is terrified for her sons, for she knows her father’s anger.

Medea herself feels immeasurable worry for Jason, her heart is wrenched on the one hand by her feelings for the stranger, and on the other by devotion to her father.

Argus tells Jason that he will go to his mother and ask her to ask Medea for help.

Jason agrees. He is definitely afraid, and returns to the Argo to tell the crew what is to happen. Despair ranges among the Argonauts, but Peleus (later father of Achilles) says that he will do the task for Jason. This causes others to rise to volunteer and the despair evaporates.

While they are on the deck of the Argo, a hawk falls from the sky and is impaled on the stern ornament. Mopsus, the soothsayer, says that they should seek the help of Medea, remembering Phineas’ words about obeying Aphrodite. The crew agrees, except Idas.

Idas shames the rest of the men for relying on women and Aphrodite. “Do ye look to doves and hawks to save yourselves from contests?” he says.

And it is true, that this dependence on love, or women, is not common it ancient epics. Aphrodite rescues heroes from the battlefield in the Iliad, true, but she is an Olympian goddess. Medea is not.

But Idas is overruled.

Meanwhile, Aeetes plans treachery and regrets ever welcoming Phrixus into his home; he did so by the command of Zeus. Aeetes however, remembers his father Helios’ prophecy that he must avoid the secret treachery of his offspring who, in this case, he believes to be the sons of Phrixus and his daughter Chalciope. He vows that the Argonauts shall not escape.

Medea however, can’t stop thinking about Jason. She can’t sleep or think straight. She is a young woman overcome with love and confusion. She goes to speak with her sister, Chalciope.

Not a Monster…Yet

The common perception that most people have of Medea is that of the tragic, vengeful, barbarian sorceress of Eurpides’ play Medea (431 B.C.). When she discovered Jason has been unfaithful, she killed their children. It doesn’t get more monstrous than that!

However, the Medea of Apollonius’ Argonautica is nothing of the sort.

Medea is not a monster at all, but rather a young woman torn by anguish and love for Jason. She decides to help Jason by calling on “Hecate’s temple charms”, but she knows that the Colchians will heap disgrace on her for preferring a stranger to her father.

Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea

She even considers suicide but is dissuaded in her heart by Hera. With the light of the next day, her mind is made up. Medea prepares an ointment called the “Charm of Prometheus” which is made from a root that looks like flesh, and that has been fed by the blood of the Titan’s wound on the Caucasus.

That morning, Argus brings Jason to the shrine of Hecate where Medea is waiting for him. Jason goes on alone, at Hera’s bidding, and arrives at the shrine to meet Medea face-to-face. Apollonius says that they are at first silent “like oaks or lofty pines, which stand quietly side by side on the mountains when the wind is still.”

Jason asks her to speak and not be shy. He tells her that he comes to her a suppliant and a stranger for her help. He says that the returning heroes will spread word of her fame across all Greece. Jason even mentions Ariadne who helped another stranger, Theseus, against her father’s Minotaur and then left her homeland with the hero. He says the gods will thank her!

In our hindsight, we know the irony of this statement – Ariadne was left by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and Medea receives anything but thanks later in life. She becomes more infamous than famous for her deeds.

Medea tells him of the ceremony he must perform, which involves bathing in the river by night, digging a round pit, and sacrificing a ewe to Hecate. Then Jason must pour Hecate a libation of honey. At dawn he is then to strip down and anoint his body with the charm of Prometheus which will give him “boundless prowess and mighty strength” and protect him from the bulls’ fire and the earthborn warriors’ spears.

Medea also tells Jason how he can defeat the earthborn warriors that will grow from the dragon’s teeth by casting a stone among them. She knows that once he succeeds he will leave and she:

“…cast her eyes to her feet in silence, and her cheek, divinely fair, was wet with warm tears as she sorrowed for that he was about to wander far away from her side over the wide sea…”

Jason says that he will never forget her, day or night, but she is hurt when he speaks to her of ‘guest-love’ such as Ariadne had for Theseus, and that he wishes Aeetes was as kindly toward himself as Minos was to Theseus.

“In Hellas, I ween, this is fair to pay heed to covenants; but Aeetes is not such a man among men as thou sayest was Pasiphae’s husband, Minos; nor can I liken myself to Ariadne; wherefore speak not of guest-love. But only do thou, when thou hast reached Iolcus, remember me, and thee even in my parents’ despite, will I remember.”                                                                                                                               

Medea’s feelings run deeper than Jason knows. Indeed, Apollonius refers to “Love the destroyer”.

At this point, Apollonius gives over to a long conversation between Jason and Medea, developing the theme of romantic love further. There is hope, but there is also irony, and dread; listeners at the time would have known what happened in their story later on.

Jason speaks of how if she came to Hellas, Medea would be worshipped as a goddess for helping their sons return home. He also speaks of their bridal chamber.

In a way, the gods are against Medea. She is a sort of casualty at the whim of Hera. The Queen of the Gods wishes only to help Jason, and it seems that Medea is just a pawn.

“…her soul melted within her to hear his words; nevertheless she shuddered to behold the deeds of destruction to come. Poor wretch! Not long was she destined to refuse a home in Hellas. For thus Hera devised it, that Aeaean Medea might come to Ioleus for a bane to Pelias, forsaking her native land.”

Calling on the Gods

Medea goes back to the palace distraught, and Jason returns to his comrades in good spirits.

That night, Jason undertakes the ritual to Hecate that Medea outlined so carefully. There is a detailed description of the ceremony and sacrifice carried out with great reverence. The ancients took these things seriously, so it is a little unfortunate that modern retellings never touch on these religious rituals.

The ceremony works and there is a particularly terrifying moment when Hecate appears to accept the offerings:

“And when he called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was a gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of hell. All the meadows trembled at her step; and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that mead of Amarantian Phasis. And fear seized Aeson’s son, but not even did he turn round as his feet bore him forth…”

Morning comes and Jason finishes anointing himself and his weapons with the charm.

The trial is at hand. This is an episode that is shown in the retellings such as the Hallmark series but the details in the Argonautica are finer.

Jason goes onto the field where the adamant plow is and the bulls rush forth breathing their fire. But Jason is protected by his shield and charm as the bulls ram him and breath fire so that the “consuming heat played around him.”

Jason yoking the Bulls

Jason yoking the Bulls with Aeetes watching

With strength more fitting to Herakles, Jason wrestles the bulls into the yoke and makes them plow the field while goading them with his spear. Into the furrows he tosses the dragon’s teeth. It all takes the better part of a day, and after the bulls are unyoked, Jason returns to the field where the earthborn warriors are spring up all over the place, their armour and spears shining brilliantly.

Jason remembers Medea’s advice and heaves a bloody great boulder into their midst, causing the earthborn warriors to fight each other over it. Then:

“… did Aeson’s son rush upon the earthborn men, and he drew from the sheath his bare sword, and smote here and there, mowing them down, many on the belly and side, half risen to the air – and some that had risen as far as the shoulders – and some just standing upright, and others even now rushing to battle…and the furrows were filled with blood…”                                                                                 

Jason completes the impossible task that had been set for him and Aeetes returns to his palace in a rage, plotting how to defeat the heroes.

Book IV of the Argonautica begins with Aeetes’ wrath at Jason’s success, and Medea’s fear that her father will discover she has helped the heroes.

Hera puts so much fear into Medea’s heart that she flees to Jason and the sons of Phrixus who are at the Argo. There is a moving scene in which Medea touches the doors and walls of her room before fleeing her home, and she leaves a long tress of her hair behind for her mother.

Hera - Queen of the Gods

Hera – Queen of the Gods

A part of her wishes the sea had destroyed Jason before he had ever reached Colchis, for all the pain she is feeling.

She leaves the palace in the night, barefoot, and runs across the plain. The moonlight shines down on her and the goddess of that celestial orb warns Medea that “some god of affection has given thee Jason to be thy grievous woe.” But Medea keeps running.

I wonder if Shakespeare, prior to writing Romeo and Juliet, wasn’t inspired by this ancient tale of star-crossed lovers. Medea knows the dangers, and hears the warnings, but she carries on.

She arrives at the Argo where the heroes are gathered, and says that they must flee before Aeetes attacks. She says she will lead them to the grove where the Fleece is, and will lull the serpent guardian to sleep so that they can get the Fleece.

Here Medea, thoroughly terrified, makes Jason swear to honour his promise to her in front of the crew:

“Lady, let Zeus of Olympus himself be witness to my oath, and Hera, queen of marriage, bride of Zeus, that I will set thee in my halls my own wedded wife, when we have reached the land of Hellas on our return.”                                                                                                                                                          

The Golden Fleece

They sail the Argo up the river near to the grove of Ares where the Fleece is, and they come to the altar of Zeus where Phrixus sacrificed the golden ram.

Nearby is the sacred oak tree “on which was hung the Fleece, like to a cloud that blushes red with the fiery beams of the rising sun.”

Medea shows Jason the Fleece

Medea shows Jason the Fleece

As soon as they arrive, the giant serpent rises and hisses at them, and the sound echoes over the grove and the land of Colchis, waking the people of the land with fear.

Here, it is not Jason who performs acrobatic antics about the serpent to obtain the Fleece, as happens in the movies. It is thanks to Medea and her charms, her voice, that Jason is able to grab the prize. As the serpent uncoils and rears, Medea approaches its eyes, speaking softly:

“And Aeson’s son followed in fear, but the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea; but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with newly cut spray of juniper dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled the eyes, while she chanted her song; and all around the potent scent of the charm cast sleep; and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down; and far behind through the wood with its many trees were those countless coils stretched out.”

Jason snatches the Fleece unceremoniously from the tree and they run back to the Argo. Once on board, he finally holds up the prize for all to see:

“Heavy it was, thickly clustered with flocks; and as he moved along, even beneath his feet the sheen rose up from the earth. And he strode on now with the fleece covering his left shoulder from the height of his neck to his feet, and now again he gathered it up in his hands; for he feared exceedingly, lest some god or man should meet him and deprive him thereof.”

The Fleece is divine, and Apollonius describes it as gleaming “like the lightning of Zeus.”

The quest seems complete, and Jason addresses the crew that has come with him this far:

“No longer now, my friends forbear to return to your fatherland. For now the task for which we dared this grievous voyage, toiling with bitter sorrow of heart, has been lightly fulfilled by the maiden’s counsels. Her – for such is her will – I will bring home to be my wedded wife; do ye preserve her, the glorious saviour of all Achaea and of yourselves.”

The Argonauts set sail, fully armed and ready for an attack, and Jason stands beside Medea on the deck.

The Hero, Jason

The Hero, Jason

It seems to me that Medea is an unsung hero in most retellings of the Argonautica. Could Jason have done this without the gods’ help, or without Medea’s? Probably not. To our modern view, Jason is not the shiny hero we often read about or perceive. He is standing on the shoulders of others.

But perhaps that is the lesson the ancients wanted taught? In the ancient world, the belief was that mortals needed the gods’ help in all things. The gods deserved their due reverence. It is only in modern retellings of these heroic epics that this message is watered down, showing heroes to be more like rebels when it comes to the gods who oversee their world.

Aeetes and his son, Apsyrtus, rush to the Colchian shore with their full army ready for battle only to find that the Argonauts, sons of Phrixus, and Medea, have already set sail. The king calls on Helios and Zeus to witness the Argonauts’ evil deeds. He also calls on all his people to seize Medea on land or sea and bring her back to him. Aeetes wants vengeance!

I know this post has been longer than the others, but it just goes to show how much this original story entails, and how much is usually left out in the retellings we are so familiar with.

Most often, the story is on a downward slope from here on. In the movies, Jason and the Argonauts return to Colchis, confront Pelias, and all ends happily ever after.

But that is not how things go in the Argonautica. We are only half way through the tale and the homeward journey is something more akin to the Odyssey than to a breezy Aegean pleasure cruise to victory.

In the next couple posts of this series, we’ll find out what trials await the Argonauts, and whether the gods are pleased or full of fury at what has transpired.

Thank you for reading.