In Search of Ithaca: where is Odysseus’s real home?
Maps! You either love them or you hate them.
David Hair and I happen to love them, so I put some long hours into creating one for our third Olympus book, Sacred Bride. Drawing it was a challenge, but it wasn’t my unsteady pen hand that gave me my biggest problem…
The southern Ionian islands, with the entrance to the Corinthian Gulf on the right (image: Cath Mayo)
At first glance, it looks easy – there’s Ithaca tucked up next to Kefalonia, as it is on all modern maps.
But is modern Ithaca the same as Homer’s Ithaca, the island Odysseus struggled to return to in the Odyssey? Is this really where we can find the Cave of the Nymphs, where Odysseus hid his treasure after he came home from the Trojan War? Can we really stand on the spot outside the palace walls where his old dog Argos died?
Odysseus and his dog, by John Flaxman (image: Wikimedia Commons)
The more ancient the historical period – and these stories are set over 3000 years ago – the scarcer the facts. And on modern Ithaca, so far, archaeologists haven’t managed to dig up compelling answers to my question.
What about searching the myths for clues? Extracting certainty from the maze of Greek mythology can be like a man taking a widdle outside on a gusty day. If he’s not careful, he can end up with a face full of his own piss.
Pissing into the wind (image: https://happeningo.com)
And yet… in the Odyssey, Odysseus himself gives a detailed account of just where Ithaca is, when he tells the Phaeacians about his homeland.
“My home is on sunny Ithaca” he says. “There’s a mountain, Neriton … which can be seen from afar; and many islands surround it, quite close to each other, Dulichium, and Same and wooded Zakynthos.
[Ithaca] itself is low-lying, rugged, farthest out to sea in the direction of darkness, while they lie towards the dawn and the sun…”
Some of this seems clear:
- The place we now call Ithaca is indeed rugged.
- Its highest mountain is called Neriton.
- There’s a town called Same on the east coast of Kefalonia, just across from Ithaca.
- Zakynthos, also known as Zante, lies to the south, closer to the equator and the sun’s path.
Then it gets tricky.
Homer’s Odysseus mentions four islands – Ithaca, Dulichium, Same and Zakynthos. And on modern maps, there are indeed four main islands.
But the narrow channel that separates Levkas from the mainland is man-made and post-dates Homer. So, at the time when The Odyssey was written down, there were only three main islands in this part of the Ionian: Ithaca, Zakynthos and Same – the latter arguably the old name for Kefalonia.
Where is Dulichium?
But that’s not the only problem.
- Where are the “many islands” that “surround” Ithaca? “Amphi” always means “surrounded by” in Homeric Greek, not “next to”, as it sometimes does in later Greek.
- Why is Ithaca called “low-lying” when Neriton is 806 metres (2645 feet) high?
- Why is it described as “farthest out to sea” when the more westerly Kefalonia seems to fit that bill much better?
- What is meant by “darkness”? North, away from the sun’s path? Or west, where the sun sets into night, as most Homeric commentators have held?
- And what about the other islands lying “towards the dawn”? Isn’t that the east? But Ithaca is east of much of Kefalonia…
These are questions that have set scholars scratching their heads raw for the last 2500 years.
Man scratching his head; The Evening Ledger 1916 ( image: Wiktionary)
So much so that a nineteenth century German archaeologist went looking for Ithaca on Levkas, and recently Robert Bittlestone decided Ithaca had to be Paliki, the big peninsular on the western side of Kefalonia.
Both “solutions”, though vigorously argued, ran into trouble.
Levkas wasn’t an island, back when Homer composed his poems, as we have already seen. And it’s no further west than Ithaca, and has virtually no traces of occupation that can be dated to the time of the Trojan War, the background for Homer’s poems.
Geophysicists have proved that Paliki, too, is a peninsula, not an island, and has been so for millions of years. Bittlestone also worked himself into a corner by identified modern Ithaca/Ithaca – small, rugged and bony – as Dulichium, a place which would have been rich, fertile, extensive and densely populated. According to Homer, Dulichium sent 40 ships to Troy and 58 suitors to contest for Penelope’s hand, well-outnumbering the combined Ithaca/Same/Zacynthos contingents for both events.
Penelope and the Suitors, by John William Waterhouse (image: Wikimedia Commons)
While Levkas has islands nearby, it’s certainly not encircled by them. And Paliki, as part of Kephalonia, isn’t surrounded by any islands, let alone the “many islands” of Odysseus’s description.
The further I delved into the question, the more heated the arguments got, and the more confusing it became. What to do? Leave a blank on the map? Just give up – roll over and play dead?
This dog is not dead (photo: Darren Foreman; Wikimedia Commons)
Is it possible that scholars, staring at maps in the quiet sanctuaries of their studies, are approaching the problem the wrong way?
Years ago, I discovered, while tramping and climbing off the beaten track in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, that looking at maps or even detailed aerial photos is of limited use. Far more important are the route accounts found in books like Moir’s Guide. These describe the valleys, rivers and prominent landmarks as you find them on the ground, step by step. I’m going to make one up, to give you an idea how they read.
“Cross the stile at the southern end of the road bridge and follow a prominent deer trail through open bush for half an hour. On reaching the Agnostos River, head upstream until you reach the second tributary coming in from the south. To avoid climbing a high bluff just past the tributary, ford the Agnostos and continue on grassy river flats…”
And so on and so on…
The route guide makes total sense as my hypothetical trampers make their way up the Agnostos river, giving them a vivid picture of the valley as it unfolds before them. They’d be struggling to access much of that information from either their map or any aerial photos.
What if Odysseus’s description of Ithaca is more akin to a ground-level route guide, telling us what we will experience as we travel towards Ithaca?
What do we experience when we approach Ithaca by sea, as the Ancient Greeks must have done, standing on a swaying ship’s deck as it emerges from the Corinthian Gulf or sails up from the south coast of Greece?
Ancient Greek ship, from a vase by the Leagros Group (photo: Bib Saint-Pol; Wikimedia)
Remember – the early Greeks didn’t have satellites to take photos from. And maps as we know them hadn’t been invented. So that bird’s eye view we’re used to was completely alien to them.
In August 2007, my husband Alan and I boarded a ferry to Ithaca, to find out what travelling to Ithaca from Mainland Greece would be like. The initial part of the journey took on a measure of black farce – it was a stinking hot summer and large swathes of Greece’s forests were on fire. The smoke was so thick as we left Patras, just outside the Corinthian Gulf, we could barely see past the bow of the ship.
I was bitterly disappointed. We’d come all the way from New Zealand to stare blindly at nothing.
But as we headed out into the Ionian Sea, the air cleared a little. Landmarks appeared, filling out a picture remarkably like the one Odysseus painted to the Phaeacians.
Zakynthos was soon left behind. Ahead of us loomed Kefalonia. Its massive bulk, topped by Mt Ainos at 1680 metres (over 5500 feet), dominated our view, while to our right lay an unexpected scatter of small islands.
And finally, furthest to the north, at the end of our journey, the low-slung southern hills of Ithaca hunkered into sight. Mt Neriton, the highest point on Ithaca, commands the northern part of the island, but our first encounter with the island, staring through the windows of our ferry as it worked its way across from the Corinthian Gulf, was very different. The whole of southern Ithaca is made up of rolling hills of no great height, and even Neriton, beyond them, is dwarfed by the mountains of its massive neighbour, Kefalonia.
Mt Neriton, on Ithaca (photo: Cath Mayo)
By now, the islets and rocks had given way to larger islands to Ithaca’s east – Atokos, Kastos, Arkoudi, Kalamos, Meganissi: the northern group of the Echinades, as they are called. I was amazed, not just by their number and their size, but by their very existence.
A day or two later, we climbed to the top of a hill near Vathy, Ithaca’s main town. From here, all the islands, large and small, were even more prominent. With Kefalonia looming at our backs, we felt truly encircled.
Why was I so surprised by the islands clustering around Ithaca? Blame the map makers! Tourist maps of Ithaca and Kefalonia don’t include any of the Echinades – they’re off the edge of the local maps, away to the east. And on maps of the whole of Greece, the Northern Echinades are insignificant dots and the Southern Echinades – that multitude of islets and rocks we first encountered – are too small for the map-makers to bother with.
Being there painted a very different picture. Homer’s “many surrounding islands… lying towards the dawn” came to life before our eyes.
Some of the northern Echinades islands at dawn, looking east from Ithaca. Mainland Greece is in the background (photo: Cath Mayo)
But the Echinades are not the only islands to lie to the east. In fact, whether we’re sailing northwest to Ithaca or looking at those dreaded maps, we find much of Zakynthos lies to Ithaca’s east as well. And the stretch of Kefalonia’s coast one first encounters by boat also lies well east of Ithaca… So Odysseus’s description, though still not a perfect fit, is a lot closer than I thought it would be.
What about Dulichium, that elusive fourth island?
It could be argued that the island now called Kefalonia was perhaps two ancient sub-kingdoms in one, with Same on the eastern side, where the modern town is placed, and – on the other side of mighty Mt Ainos and its bulky mountain ranges – Dulichium commanding the large expanse of fertile countryside on the west. And it’s this western area where so many Late Bronze Age tombs – dating from around the time of the Trojan War – have been found. It was clearly a rich and well-populated place.
And furthest towards the “darkness”? Just because Greek commentators hundreds of years later equated “the darkness” with the west doesn’t mean that people at the time of the Trojan War or even Homer did the same. For any self-respecting northern hemisphere real estate agent, “north-facing” – dark, damp and cold, because it faces away from the sun – is better left unmentioned.
So… how is Odysseus’s description of Ithaca looking now?
- Many islands surrounding Ithaca… Tick.
- Low-lying … relatively speaking: Tick
- Rugged… Tick
- Mt Neriton… Tick
- Farthest out to sea… if you’re arriving by boat from mainland Greece: Tick
- …in the direction of darkness… away from the equator and the sun’s path: Tick
Even “…while they lie towards the dawn and the sun…” gets rather more than half a tick.
By putting aside our maps, and approaching Ithaca as Odysseus would have experienced it, on the heaving deck of a ship, we felt we had found Ithaca at last.
Sacred Bride is out!
David Hair and I are really excited about our third book in the Olympus series – Sacred Bride. I’m sure you’ve heard of Helen of Troy, the “Face the Launched a Thousand Ships”, whose abduction – or seduction – by Paris started a ruinous ten-year-long war which has been talked about ever since.
Helen of Troy, by Evelyn de Morgan
Not so many people know that her original wedding was a pretty fraught business too, one which threatened to start a conflict every bit as ruinous as the Trojan War – if it hadn’t been for the wit and cunning of one man: Odysseus.
It’s this lesser-known strand of mythology that David and I have woven into a fast-paced story that explores the climactic events that precede the Trojan War.
Is Helen a young innocent girl, a pawn to be manipulated by powerful men? Or are her thoughts and feelings and ambitions as important as those of the men who want to control her? What roles are Zeus and the other gods playing? How does High King Agamemnon come to marry his cousin’s wife and why might she want to murder him for it? Who is the father of Helen’s secret baby, and what has become of it?
And what can Odysseus and his friends Bria and Penelope do to avert disaster?
We hope you enjoy finding out the answers to these questions as much as we enjoyed writing about them!
Turning characters into real people – and rescuing Penelope from the Victorians in the process!
How can we turn book characters into believable people? And do we always need to?
In fiction writing, there are usually two kinds of characters: the fully-fleshed, three-dimensional person, and the more two-dimensional trope. In our Olympus series, set in Ancient Greece, David Hair and I use both.
The trope-type is easy to handle, someone we can slide into a plot and move around with predictable results. He or she is a minor character who doesn’t make more than a ripple on the surface of the story. Nor do we want them to – otherwise they start getting in the way.
In contrast, the major characters need to engage the reader more deeply. An author needs to draw on a wide range of experiences, and exercise a sharp eye and ear for detail. If you like drinking coffee, beware of the roving novelist – they’re the café customer tapping snippets of chat into their Smartphone and noting that smear of yoghurt on your leggings, while nonchalantly sipping their second latte.
Café Scene (photo: Adam Jones, Wikimedia Commons)
If the characters are well-rounded, they will feel “real” and the reader will invest more emotion in their lives and problems. In the process, they become a much trickier creature. Once established on the page, three-dimensional characters have a nasty habit of making up their own minds about what they’re thinking and doing. The more colourful we make them, the more their independent streak develops.
In the opening pages of my first YA novel, Murder at Mykenai, my hero, a teenaged Odysseus, meets Menelaus, who was originally supposed to be a minor character – a side-kick at best. To make Menelaus more interesting, I researched his personality (loyal, generous and self-effacing, according to Homer’s Iliad) and his background.
What I found out was galvanising: his family life was wildly dysfunctional. Before I knew it, Menelaus had taken over the whole book. My hero was reduced to the role of commentator and support act, throughout a bloody turmoil of brutal fratricide, domestic violence and murder, betrayal, possible cannibalism and male rape. And yes, it all happened in Ancient Greece…
Murder at Mykenai by Catherine Mayo, Walker Books Australia
Historical fiction presents a particular challenge of its own – how do you reach back into the past, to explore attitudes and behaviour so very different from our own? Neither David Hair nor I can park ourselves at a local side-walk café to overhear the conversation of a couple of Late Bronze Age Greek spearsmen, as they take a well-earned break from warrior training.
Our books are set over 3000 years ago, at the time of the Trojan War. This period is officially branded “pre-history” – there are no written historical or biographical accounts from Greece at the time. We can’t dive into contemporary memoirs to find out what Achilles really thought, for example, when he dragged Hector’s battered body round the walls of Troy.
The Greeks of the Trojan War era did have a form of writing, a syllabary called Linear B, but unlike their contemporaries, they used it for what archaeologists dismissively call “laundry lists” – palace inventories of people, products and equipment.
Linear B tablet recording wool to be dyed (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
But you’ve got to start somewhere. Some years ago, I went back to university to study Ancient Greek, hoping I would learn more about these extraordinary people and their culture through the way they put together words and ideas. I’m afraid my Greek language skills never reached the point where I could enter their minds in such an effortless way as I’d hoped!
But it has allowed me to distinguish between the original texts and the later layers of meaning placed upon them. In our Olympus books, I translate all the quotes that start each chapter, and often I’m amazed at the liberties taken by earlier translators. Sometimes it’s done to create a smoother read. But sometimes the lens through which a scholar peers can be quite a distorting one.
For me, the best example of this distortion is Penelope, Odysseus’s wife in The Odyssey, now a major character in the second of our Olympus books, Oracle’s War.
Homer’s Penelope is a very strong woman. Left defenceless by the absence of her husband and his army, she still manages to protect her son and her household against all comers, despite her vulnerability. She does this through her wits and her cunning, backed by a steely obstinacy: she has promised Odysseus to raise their son to manhood, so he can inherit his father’s house and goods. And she has never given up on Odysseus’s eventual return, against all the available evidence or –even more frustrating – the lack of it. He has simply disappeared, leaving Ithaca in a dangerous limbo.
The Suitors discover Penelope’s ruse with the shroud (detail), by John Flaxman 1810 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Her obstinacy doesn’t just involve sitting around minding her own business. For the ten years that follow the end of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s disappearance, she has been visited by scores of men eager to persuade her they have news of Odysseus, and thereby milk her of gratitude and gifts. Worse, some of them try and persuade her they are Odysseus himself – by the climax of the poem, it has been twenty years since she farewelled Odysseus at the start of the war, and she can no longer be sure what he might look like after such a long time.
But her greatest challenge is to fend off the many suitors who invade her house, abuse her hospitality and try and force her to marry one of them against her will. Her resulting trick with her loom is famous. She promises the suitors she will agree to wed once her father-in-law’s burial shroud is finished. For three years she weaves by day and secretly undoes her work by night.
Her ruse discovered, she still doesn’t give up on Odysseus’s return. But nor is she reduced to grasping at straws. Her cross-examination of the real Odysseus, when they finally meet, is consummate – a mix of searching intelligence, guile and scepticism.
Penelope och Odysseus som tiggare, [Penelope and Odysseus as a beggar] Nordisk familjebok (Wikimedia Commons)
Nineteenth and early twentieth century commentators, on the other hand, had a different tub to thump. Victorian women were praised for their modesty, their chastity and faithfulness, and their absolute submission to a dominant male. Penelope was repackaged to fit this trope.
Penelope (detail), by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, 1864 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Odysseus weeps more or less non-stop for seven years on Calypso’s island but doesn’t lose any hero points for doing so.
Penelope’s tears are far fewer but she has been branded a milksop. Her determination not to give up on her resourceful husband’s return is translated into weak-minded passivity. “Faithful” Penelope can be seen in any number of paintings, drooping before her loom, soft-fleshed and scantily clad.
In Oracle’s War, it has been a delight to shake ourselves free of this cloying imagery, and set Penelope back on her feet, sharp-minded and quick-witted, with all her calm but stubborn resourcefulness.
Oracle’s War (Book Two of the Olympus Series) is out now!
Did I write it right?
When David Hair and I map out our Olympus books, there’s one question we’re constantly challenged by. How correct do you need to be, when you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy?
“Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” is what some say. But many readers – and I’m one of them – can tell you about the time they came across a blooper, fell right out of the world they’d entered and never found their way back. Sometimes they didn’t just stop reading the book, their sense of betrayal was so great they threw it at the wall (do not try this with eReaders…).
But what’s the problem? After all, we’re reading fiction, aren’t we?
For example, nobody is likely to have recorded what Queen Elizabeth the First and Mary Queen of Scots said to each other, on meeting for the first time.
Elizabeth the First, unknown artist; Mary Queen of Scots by Nicholas Hilliard (Images: Wikimedia Commons)
Yet we might happily read, in a novel, that Elizabeth greeted her cousin with: “Good morning, Mary, how are you keeping?” and that Mary replied: “I thank you, Cousin, I’m faring very well.” This kind of fictional dialogue, between characters long-since dead, is usually accepted as “real”.
Why? Through the energy and colour of invented speech, we come to know the characters as living, breathing people; we experience them as though we’re standing in the same room. We not only suspend our belief, we’ve entered a whole parallel belief-world, one the author has created and which we now inhabit.
But what if Elizabeth and Mary never met? (Fact check: they didn’t.) And worse, what if the fictional conversation took place in 1588? Or 1590? Mary was executed in 1587 so she would have had no head by then, and therefore no cozy chat with Elizabeth about her health (very poor, as it happens!).
The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, by Abel de Pujol (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
If the reader already knows this, the book not only hits the wall, it stays lying on the floor for days after, because they can’t even be bothered picking it up.
What has happened here? I call it “breaking the thread of trust”.
Imagine an author stretching out an invisible but very real strand of belief to every person who reads or hears their story. It’s through this link that the reader enters the author’s parallel world and lives inside it while the story is being told. This is the great gift fiction brings us. Through it we can not only read about other people, we can become part of their world, even “become” a character for a time, and gain insight and empathy as well as pleasure.
As Neil Gaiman said in “American Gods”: ‘Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes … A life, which is, like any other, unlike any other.’
But if the strand of belief is cut, it’s like pulling an electrical cable out from the wall – the parallel world switches off.
If the blooper is big enough, the thread can’t be reconnected and the book is put aside.
This doesn’t just apply to historical fiction of course – an author can alienate their readers with a blooper in any genre. And it isn’t even restricted to writing. I’ve spent much of my working life as a musician, so I know what happens when a singer forgets their words, or a bass player starts off in the wrong key or the wrong tempo – or even the wrong piece! An audience may not walk out, but they can spend the rest of the concert on the edge of their seats waiting for the next mistake, rather than enjoying the music.
As an author, I had this confirmed the hard way only a few days ago. Some years back, I’d given a friend a copy of a short story I’d written. Recently he came to stay and our pre-dinner conversation somehow worked its way round to the story, which had been triggered by an intriguing historical snippet.
When the famous violin virtuoso Viotti travelled to Russia in the late eighteenth century, he was reputedly given a Stradivarius violin as a love token by Catherine the Great.
Antonio Stradivari, unknown artist (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
When I first read this, my “what if” buttons started to flash. I spent a few frenzied days reading, and discovered Catherine was known for her strong sexual appetites (why does no one bother mentioning this about her fellow Tsars?) and for her passion for lap dogs.
Catherine the Great with Zemira, by Vladimir Borovikovsky (Image: arthive.com)
So… My short story tells of a rival concert violinist who travels to St Petersburg hoping to emulate Viotti, if not outdo him. All has gone well – he has even managed to play his violin while being straddled by Catherine, simultaneously sharing her bed with one of the dogs, despite his allergy to dog hair. But then something goes wrong. His dismissal (sans gifts of any kind) unhappily coincides with the death of her favourite pet.
Catherine is overheard saying something along the lines of “Stuff him!” (though perhaps more elegantly put). The Chief of Secret Police is galvanized into action and two days later, Catherine is placated by the appearance of a glass cabinet, suitably draped. The cloth is whipped off to reveal, not the preserved corpse of her beloved Fifi, but the elegantly-arranged body of the violinist, a tribute to the consummate skills of the Royal Taxidermist.
My Australian friend confessed he had thoroughly enjoyed the story until he reached the climactic scene. I did know he had grown up on a farm; I didn’t know he had tried to tan the skin of his deceased pet lamb with horrible results. This olfactory disaster led him to find out rather more than I’d bothered to do about the processes of taxidermy.
Fact One: It takes a lot more than two days to stuff any animal, let alone a concert violinist.
Fact Two: my friend dismissed my whole story as rubbish. He didn’t even bother to tell me, so I could correct it.
And the moral?
Authors should never underestimate what their readers might know. And once a reader’s trust is broken, they may not risk picking up anything else by the same writer, for fear of being let down again – the “what else did that careless jackass get wrong?” syndrome.
1. Myths are a different beast altogether. David and I know this well, because our Olympus books are set in a pre-historical era, long before Greek history was written down. The oral versions of stories were passed on for many generations, accumulating gods and monsters at every turn. So all Greek myths have a number of variants. We tend to pick the earliest forms but re-adapt them to suit our story when we must – for we too are part of the myth-making machine!
On the other hand, we make our physical world conform as closely to Late Bronze Age archaeology and geography as we can.
- But even historical or archaeological “facts” can be strange and elusive creatures. Especially when we’re dealing with ancient history. Sometimes they are no more than the loudest voice in a heated academic debate.
As authors, we still need to know, however, why we’ve plumped themselves down on one side of the argument or another.
That way, we at least will believe in the details of our story. That goes some way towards giving our books that elusive flavour of authenticity. And we’re less likely to trip ourselves up as spectacularly as I did over Catherine’s lap dog Fifi and the famous fiddler.
Oracle’s War (Book Two of the Olympus Series) is out now!
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Oracles-War-Olympus-Book-2-ebook/dp/B07PN8RGW5 (ebook and print)
Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/nz/en/ebook/oracle-s-war (ebook)
Greeks or Achaeans: What’s in a name?
The Olympus books David Hair and I write are set in Ancient Greece at the time of the Trojan War, over 3000 years ago. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy making the people in our books more authentic than someone we might meet at a bus stop who just happens to be wearing fancy dress.
What simple triggers can we use to help our readers enter a different place and time? What our characters call both themselves and the country they live in is a great place to start.
The Ancient Greeks were hardly likely to call themselves “Ancient” (plus or minus a capital “A”), but surely they called themselves Greeks… Or did they?
(Image: Wikimedia Commons; Cath Mayo)
The quick answer is “no”.
Greece or “Graecia” is the name their eventual conquerors, the Romans used, and which English-speaking countries have adopted ever since. In fact, the Greeks still don’t call themselves “Greeks” – they are Hellenes, and their country is Hellas, and has been for at least 2500 years.
What if we go further back in time? Homer’s famous poems were composed at least 300 years before Thucydides described the warring habits of the Hellenes in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars. But in the Iliad and the Odyssey, “Hellenes” are nowhere to be found. Instead the bard called the Greeks who attacked Troy “Achaeans”.
Wind back the clock another 400-500 years yet again, to the time of the Trojan War itself, and we find “Ahhiyawa” in documents written by their neighbours the Hittites. That “Ahhiyawa” is another form of Homer’s term, except with a double “hh”, is easily explained: Greek “ch” is an aspirated sound at the back of the throat, a softer version of the “ch” in Scottish “loch”, rather than the “ch” in “chunky”.
So it was a no-brainer for David and me to call our people “Achaeans”, rather than “Greeks”, and have them live in a region called “Achaea”, not Greece or even Hellas.
But was Achaea a coherent nation? The Hittites seemed to think so, when they wrote to a single supreme leader, and certainly the archaeological remains for that time show a shared culture and language.
Here again, the answer is probably “no”. Homer provides strong clues as to what was really going on. The Iliad lists all the Greek forces at Troy by their kingdoms, and an impressive list it is – there are twenty eight of them!
Many scholars and archaeologists believe, from internal evidence, that this list of kingdoms and cities may well date back hundreds of years before Homer’s poems were written down – to the Late Bronze Age, the time of the Trojan War itself. The list had been kept alive as oral history through the songs of a whole series of bards over the centuries. Here’s a map naming sixteen of them:
(Image: Alexikoua, Wikimedia Commons)
In The Iliad, it’s clear the overall leader is Agamemnon, their high king, but the Achaeans at Troy are a quarrelsome lot, each group owing their primary loyalty to their own king or prince. So the “Achaea” of Homer’s poem isn’t a single political state, but rather a loose and uneasy collective, with some sort of unwritten obligation to a nominal head.
Other Greek myths that also seem to originate in the Late Bronze Age period give a similar picture, one of an Achaea wracked with family feuds, squabbles between rival kingdoms, and internal wars.
These tales of conflict are a veritable gold mine, one that David and I are having huge pleasure exploring in our Olympus books.
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Oracles-War-Olympus-Book-2-ebook/dp/B07PN8RGW5 (ebook and print)
Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/nz/en/ebook/oracle-s-war (ebook)
Oracle’s War, Book Two in the Olympus series, is out now!
ORACLE’S WAR, the second book of our OLYMPUS SERIES, is out!
It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was announcing the arrival of ATHENA’S CHAMPION, David Hair’s and my first book of the OLYMPUS SERIES. Now we have Book Number Two successfully birthed!
It’s called ORACLE’S WAR, and once again it follows the adventures of Odysseus as he continues to fight alongside his fellow Athena champions to save Achaea from destruction.
A catastrophe on his island home of Ithaca forces him to set sail, not only to retrieve his family’s honour but discover the mysterious secret behind a new oracle on Delos. The prophetess, a raw and inexperienced novice priestess of Artemis, has unsuspected skills that will have a profound effect on Odysseus’s life.
But first he must thwart a plot by the Trojans to invade Greece and obliterate everything he holds dear, aided by ruthless and unscrupulous Olympians, who are once again portrayed through our unique view of the mythos. If you’ve read ATHENA’S CHAMPION, you’ll know what that is!
Writing this second book with David has been another fantastic experience. We’ve currently abandoned the process of living in different countries – David has moved back to New Zealand and we even managed to catch up for breakfast and finally have a proper “double author” photo taken. And no, we didn’t need to hire a wind machine to achieve that famous “Bee Gees” look – we were just outside Wellington on a calm day…
(That’s David on the left…)
Athena’s Champion is going really well – here’s a link to a recent rave in the Historical Novel Review: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/athenas-champion-olympus-trilogy/
And to celebrate the launch of ORACLE’S WAR, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about our writing process and the layers that lie behind the OLYMPUS books.
If you’re wanting to get your hands on ORACLE’S WAR, here are some links:
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Oracles-War-Olympus-Book-2-ebook/dp/B07PN8RGW5 (ebook and print)
Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/nz/en/ebook/oracle-s-war (ebook)
Cath’s new book Athena’s Champion out next month
It’s been a while since I last posted with some exciting book news. Not because I’ve been lying pool-side drinking Pina Coladas – far from it! I have been hugely busy on a new writing project and the time has come to lift off the covers and show what I’ve been up to.
I’ve partnered up with fellow Kiwi author David Hair, and Canelo Publishing (UK), to produce THE OLYMPUS SERIES. The first book, ATHENA’S CHAMPION, will be released on November 8th. We’re contracted for three books, but we’ve several more planned after that.
So what’s the series about? As with my two YA novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow, it’s our take on those Greek myths that form a prequel to the Trojan War. This time, the books are adult fantasy novels but once again, they are full of action and adventure, with a strong historical grounding, lively characters and a goodly dose of humour. And ODYSSEUS is back as our chief protagonist, a little older, a little wiser but faced with plenty of challenges, some of them of his own making…
David and I believe we’ve come up with a unique approach to the Greek myths. To date, Trojan War books have largely fallen into two camps – (1) the gods are majestic super-beings with human personas, squabbling petulantly and behaving with what seems to be bewildering inconsistency, one moment benevolent, the next cruel, and with humankind utterly dependent on their goodwill; or (2) religion is reduced to shamanistic quackery and we get the gritty human war story.
Our series takes a third approach, one we’re not aware of anyone using in this mythos before. While the context is a War of the Gods that will shape the future of mankind, we have given it a major twist. No spoilers, but we’re presenting a whole new take on this timeless, classic story. If you want to know more… read the books!
We can reveal, though, that our hero Odysseus fights for reason in an age of superstition. He is a man ahead of his time, a rationalist applying logic and cunning to further his cause: the preservation of his homeland and the freeing of the human spirit.
These three books encompass some of the great tales of Greek mythology, all seamlessly delivered as a continual story – myths like the First Abduction of Helen (by the Minotaur-slayer Theseus – look it up!); the Judgement of Paris; the wars of the Seven and the Epigoni against Thebes; the Wedding of Helen and the oath of Tyndareus, all vital stages in the fermenting of the Trojan War.
They also gives us a chance to portray some of the great heroes of the pre-Trojan War period – Theseus and Heracles, as well as Odysseus, Diomedes, Hector and Paris; some of the powerful rulers of the period such as Agamemnon and Priam; potent figures of prophecy and magic like Cassandra, Tiresias, Helen and the mysterious Pythia of Delphi; gods and goddesses like Athena, Zeus and Aphrodite; and cameos by other deities and heroes of the past.
With reader support, our hope is that we will then go on to give you our unique interpretation of the Iliad (The Trojan War) and the Odyssey (Odysseus’s journey home). It’s going to be fast-moving, full of incident, adventure and magic; but also true to the mythology and the known historical context of the Aegean Bronze Age. It will be a series to satisfy both fantasy fans seeking adventure, and classical and ancient Greece enthusiasts seeking a new take on the familiar.
David and I are both very excited by this series. Working with another writer has been a blast – more on that later. Telling the tale through Odysseus’s eyes, as a first-person narration, has been hugely refreshing, and fitting together the jigsaw puzzle of the interlocking myths into a linear storyline has been a creative explosion.
David and Cath hard at work on the new book, somewhere in Thailand
ATHENA’S CHAMPION is already available for pre-order through Canelo’s website: https://www.canelo.co/books/athenas-champion/. I’ll be posting the first two pages of ATHENA’S CHAMPION as a taster on my own website shortly – I’ll keep you posted on that! The books will be primarily published as ebooks, but there will also be a print-on-demand option.
Storylines schools tour – looking back on a stunning week!
I had such a great time on my Storylines schools tour. The three other authors – poet extraordinaire Paula Green, picture book writer Juliette McIvor (of Marmaduke Duck fame) and Pasifika expert Jill McGregor – were fantastic to work with, and to share all the ups and downs with (mostly ups!)
Here we all are at the Vodafone Centre in South Auckland, after the last session on Friday. I’m in the caving suit I wore inside the Greek cave that features in The Bow, with a borrowed helmet care of Pete Smith of the Auckland Speleo Group.
There were some pretty keen students behind us, as you can see, and plenty of hands up at question time.
And here are some shots of us at work.
– and there’s always time for a bit of fun!
In fact, all the students I met throughout the week were amazing. There couldn’t have been more variety – we visited Decile 3 schools through to Decile 9 and 10s; sometimes we spoke to 20 students, sometimes to 300; and their ages ranged from Year 0 to Year 10, though – with my YA books – I generally presented to Year 6 and up, with the occasional Year 4-5 group added in.
Here I am at my old school, Epsom Girls Grammar, in their lovely new library – well, new by my standards!
What really amazed me, over and over again, was the courtesy the students showed us, and their enthusiasm. Personally, I prefer a touch of anarchy if it also means more energy and involvement from the students ( see the audience photo above at the Vodafone Centre). Almost always we struck just the right mix – gold. Some of the questions blew me away, they were so imaginative and unexpected.
The other thing that constantly impressed me was the commitment and care from so many of the teachers and librarians we met. These people really love their jobs and put everything into their students – very inspiring. Here’s the amazing Fiona Mackie with The Team at Pinehurst.
But Decile levels are often irrelevant – some of the best work and support is also happening at the so-called “lower” education levels. You can be proud!
Glendowie College Year 10’s read Murder at Mykenai
Glendowie’s magnificent Robin Harding wrote the Teacher Resources for Murder at Mykenai last year. Now she’s taught Murder at Mykenai to two of her Year 10 English classes.
Robin lent me a great pile of class assignments to read through. It was a fascinating process to find out how all these students related to the book and discover what they thought and felt. I’ve always believed that once a book is released out into the world, it is no longer “mine” but everyone’s.
Some of the class work was stunning, and I’ve chosen four examples to showcase what great students Glendowie College has – thank you, Grace, Nathan, Brooke and Maya!
Grace was asked to write a postcard from Menelaos to his older brother Agamemnon…
Nathan and Brooke had a series of questions to answer about the early chapters: Pandora’s box; a comparison between Atreus and Thyestes; Menelaos’s nurse’s actions in Ch 12; the switch in perspective between Ch 12 and Ch 13; Menelaos’s family relationship to Palamedes; the title of the book and its meaning; and a comparison between Odysseus and Menelaos (note: if you find the writing too small, just click on the page image).
How fast the world can change
No one who has lived through the Christchurch earthquakes needs to be told how the world around them can change within minutes.
But for some reason, we assume ancient ruins fall to bits really slowly. Sometimes that’s true, but often it happens much faster. The Parthenon, perched on the Acropolis in Athens, was incredibly well-built. It looked like this for over 2000 years.
Then the Turks conquered Greece. In 1687 the Venetians attacked the Turks, and the Turks stored their ammunition inside the Parthenon. When the Venetians shelled the Acropolis, a cannon ball hit the magazine and the whole temple blew up.
Here’s another example – the great hall at Mykenai, where Atreus pardoned his murderous brother Thyestes in Chapter 11 of Murder at Mykenai. This is what it looks like today. You can still see the round pillar bases and the central hearth.
Compare it to this artist’s impression of King Nestor’s great hall at Pylos. Compare the four pillars and the central hearth with the previous photo. Atreus’s hall would have been every bit as glamourous.
The palace of Mykenai burnt down in about 1200 BC, because of a massive earthquake like Christchurch’s. In one night it went from being a fabulous building to a pile of ashes. Nestor’s palace was destroyed around the same time, through enemy invasion.
War and earthquakes have ruined much of what people built in ancient times. But we tend to assume the land has stayed the same. Geology measures change in millions of years, right?
Yes and no.
In 1991, 12-14 million cubic metres of rock and ice fell of the top of Mt Cook/Aoraki. Our highest mountain is now 10 metres lower than it was, the rockfall probably triggered by an earthquake. This kind of event is more common than we realise. Often it’s big, catastrophic events that shape our countryside.
Here’s something similar that happened in Greece. In my last blog, I mentioned I was staying in a fishing village. It’s called Korfos and it’s one of the few good harbours on a mountainous coastline. I was searching for the ancient Mykenaian port nearby, because I’m planning an enemy invasion on this coast for my next book.
I assumed the port would be on Korfos harbour. Instead I found it way over the hills overlooking a funny little headland. That’s it on the right of the picture, with Korfos on the left.
I was really puzzled till I found out that, in the Late Bronze Age, Korfos harbour was a swamp. About a hundred years after the ancient Mykenaian port was built, an earthquake lowered the swamp into the sea and turned it into a harbour. And part of the Mykenaian port disappeared into the sea too, like the lost city of Atlantis, taking its own harbour with it.
There’s lots more I could write about. The lake in The Bow has vanished. The town round Tiryns fortress is buried under 10 metres of flood debris. The Narrows, where Laertes’s ships held the evil king Thyestes at bay, is the gap between two tectonic plates that are moving apart … the list goes on.