Greeks or Achaeans: What’s in a name?

Sun 9th Jun 2019


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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.

Oracle’s War (Book Two of the Olympus Series) is out now!

Purchase from:

Amazon: (ebook and print)

Kobo: (ebook)

Fishpond: (print)

Book Depository: (print)

Oracle’s War, Book Two in the Olympus series, is out now!

Sun 2nd Jun 2019


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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:

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: (ebook and print)

Kobo: (ebook)

Fishpond: (print)

Book Depository: (print)

Happy reading!


Cath’s new book Athena’s Champion out next month

Thu 18th Oct 2018


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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: 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!

Sun 21st Sep 2014


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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.

Storylines Authors 1

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!

Under threat from Cath Mayo

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

Sun 24th Aug 2014


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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…

Murder at Mykenai class assignments Grace

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).

Murder at Mykenai class assessment 33

Murder at Mykenai class assessment 34

Murder at Mykenai class assessment 3Maya tackled the climactic chapters in the middle with insight and skill (spoiler alert – don’t read this if you haven’t already finished the book!):

Murder at Mykenai class assignments  24

Murder at Mykenai class assignments  25

How fast the world can change

Wed 30th Jul 2014


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No one who has lived through the Christchurch earthquakes needs to be told how the world around them can change within minutes.

1. Sumner library The Press






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.

2. Parthenon replica Wikipedia






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.


3. The Parthenon explosion httpict.debevec.orgSince then, the Parthenon has looked suitably ruined, but not because of the ravages of time.

4. The Parthenon today








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.

5. Mykenai great hall today  Cath photo




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.




Pylos megaron bigger image



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.

7. Mt Cook Aoraki rockfall Bob McKerrow blog

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.

8. Korfos harbour area Google Earth

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.

9. Lost city of Atlantis lukzenth via Photobucket

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.





Same but Different

Sat 19th Jul 2014


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When I arrived in Greece at the end of May, I expected some things to be different but other things to be much the way they are back here.

Different:            Ruined temples
Everyone speaks Greek
The street signs look weird1. Athens street sign
They drive on the other side of the road


The same:           Jeans and tee shirts
Motorbikes and cars (lots of motorbikes)
Coca cola
Cell phones

But then I got some real surprises. Like thunderstorms.

I love thunderstorms. When I was a kid, I’d stand on the dirt road outside our cottage on Waiheke, with the rain pelting down and the mud squishing up between my toes. After each flash, I’d count the seconds till the thunder came – BANG!-rumble-BOOM-BOOM-bump-thud-grumble-mumble. Then silence for ages, apart from the splish of the rain in the puddles.

In Greece last month, I was chased through the hills by a thunderstorm as I searched for an ancient road to Mykenai. I stopped the car and got out to watch. I soon realised this was different to any thunderstorm I’d ever experienced.

2. Thunderstorm over Limnes

For a start, I couldn’t see any lightning. But for the 15 minutes I stood there, the thunder never stopped. It groaned and muttered and growled away without a break, as if the sky god Zeus and his wife Hera were having an argument, with both of them insisting on having the last word.

And then there were the seagulls.

NZ seagulls drift through the air crying gkeee gkeee, when they’re not strutting about screaming Kaar Kaar Kaar at each other. That’s what all gulls do, right?

3.  NZ seagulls




Wrong. After I’d finished searching for my ancient road, I returned to the fishing village where I was staying. By now I was hungry, so I walked along the waterfront to a taverna. As I sat there, I heard a mewing sound. I looked about for the cat – Greek tavernas always have at least one cat and often about six.

5. Cat in a Greek taverna

But there was no cat to be seen.

After a while I realised the noise was coming from the seagulls sitting out on the water – you can see them as white dots out beyond the fishing boat. Close up they look just like NZ gulls.

4. Greek fishing boat and seagulls



Then I remembered reading some English story or poem, years and years ago, which talked about the “mewing of gulls”. The phrase had passed me by – it was so unlike anything I’d heard gulls do and I put it down to poetic fancy (ie: silliness).

This morning I decided to look up the Oxford Dictionary and there it was: “mew n. the characteristic cry of a cat, gull etc.” In fact, in England, another word for “seagull” is “sea mew” or just plain “mew”.  So European gulls are not the same as ours after all.

Sometimes it’s the big, obvious things that take you by surprise. But it’s just as much fun when some small unpredictable thing happens. It makes you look at everything in a fresh way, even the things that are the same.



Stranger and Stranger

Thu 10th Jul 2014


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A few weeks ago I was wandering through a Greek olive grove, searching for a 3300 year old city (as you do). The first thing I came across was a herd of goats. GoatsSoon after that I came across the goatherd, and when I asked him – in my very bad Greek – about the ancient city, he beckoned to me and set off through the trees. Goatherd

I decided he must be leading me to some spectacular ruins, but instead we ended up at his camp, an untidy clearing with a rickety tin shed, some goatskins over a pole, a very friendly dog and her two young pups. By now I was starting to wonder what was going on.Goatherd heading off through the olive grove

I soon found out. The goatherd produced a battered saucepan into which he poured some white liquid from a 20 litre plastic container. When he handed it to me, I knew I had no choice but to drink. It was fresh goats’ milk and it was absolutely delicious. This from a man who had almost nothing – by our standards. But because I was a stranger, he wanted to give me something.






What I’d just experienced was a Greek tradition called xenia that goes back thousands of years. In Ancient Greece, kindness to strangers was a sacred duty. The sharing of food and shelter bound people together almost like family. In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek hero Diomedes and his enemy Glaucus, a Trojan ally, stop fighting and swap armour because their ancestors were guest friends.

Diomedes and Glaucus

And early on in my new book The Bow, Odysseus and Diomedes know they can trust each other for the same reason.

If you’ve read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – surely one of the greatest (and funniest) books ever written – you’ll remember how Durrell was plied with food and wine by the peasants he met .

My Family and Other Animals book coverTourism is eroding this deeply embedded tradition, but you can still find amazing generosity in Greece if you travel off the beaten track as I did.





These days, we’re increasingly careful around strangers.  A famous Dame Edna Everage quote goes: “My mother used to say that there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet. She’s now in a maximum security twilight home.”   Dame Edna Everage

I think my goatherd would have agreed with Edna’s mum.

Greek adventures

Thu 10th Jul 2014


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Writing – and reading – can be an incredible adventure, even when most of it happens inside your head.

I should say, because most of it happens inside your head. How else can you go back in the past or forward into the future or sideways into another world? How else can you “become” someone else and experience all their fears and dramas and successes, and wake up safe and sound in your own bed the next morning?

But just occasionally we can actually travel to that other place and experience it face to face. I have just come back from a couple of weeks in Greece, where I visited some of the places I wrote about in Murder at Mykenai and The Bow – the fortresses of Mykenai and Tiryns, the site of the lake and the river in Argos, and the secret cave that occupies the middle of The Bow.

Mykenai, even in ruins, is huge and rather spooky. Cath and the Lion gate 11

The fortress walls are made of enormous blocks of stone, some of them longer than me, and a good deal heavier. Here I am standing in the entrance – it makes you wonder how people 3300 years ago ever put that huge capping stone over the gate without modern cranes and machinery. The Classical Greeks later thought it must have been built by giants – by  Cyclopses. Even the doorways to the tombs are huge.

Alan in doorway of Atreus tholos tomb 2

The lake my heroes hide in, in The Bow, has silted up, and people now live on it and grow their crops. But the river is still there, and the reeds. The low, rounded hill on the right, in the middle distance, is the site of Bronze Age Argos.Argos river with reeds inside river mouth

There’s a shingle spit  too at the river mouth, just as I described it in The Bow. It was pretty freaky to find something I thought I’d made up – though the weather was too calm to make the sorts of waves Odysseus and his friends encounter.

The big excitement of the trip was going down into the cave, which was explored in 1893 but forgotten about since. I met up with a bunch of Greek cavers and we had a fantastic time exploring it. Here’s a photos of me and Elissa at the far end, just before the crevice in which Odysseus … but I’d better not say any more, so I don’t spoil The Bow for you.

Elissa 8

How did he die?

Fri 9th May 2014


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My Greek caving friends have explored the secret cave that forms the central core of my new book The Bow. In a month’s time, they’ll take me down there as well, to brave the mud and the dark, and see some of the amazing things they’ve found.The cave entranceCave scene 3

Some of it is wonderful  – stalagmites and stalactites are always beautiful and exciting. Some of it is a little daunting  – “expect some mud” was Nikos Leloudas’s warning. Much of the cave is up to 27 metres below the flood levels of the Mantinea Plain nearby ! So whenever it rains heavily, huge amounts of water come pouring through. Inevitably some of it stays there after the sun comes out.

I’ve been busy looking at predictive weather charts for this part of Arcadia. Fortunately June sees a big drop in rainfall, so I think we’re going to be okay! I’m remembering back to one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, where a cave under the sea gets flooded and The Five only just get out. I’m still haunted by the fate of the baddies who were trapped.

Cave skullThe scariest thing Nikos and his friends found was this skull. It looks as though it’s buried in mud, but in fact all the stuff around it is limestone. How long has it been there? That’s really hard to say – the growth of stalagmites will vary hugely. It could be as little as .007 mm a year, or as much as 1 mm. It depends on the amount of water dripping from the roof of the cave, and the amount of calcium in the water.

What we can be sure of is that this skull has been there for a while! Nikos believes that the skeletons they come across in these deep places are the remains of people caught in floods up on the surface, who were washed down into the cave. One group of bodies, in the nearby Kapsia cave, started turning into a rather gruesome stalagmite around 300 BC. Our gentleman here may not have been there that long.

I’m also a bit concerned about the hole in his cranium above his eyes. Could it have been the result of a whack on the head? This particular cave has an entrance up on a slope above the plain, so it’s less likely to have been caused by a flood-driven tree trunk or other debris.

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