Archive for November, 2010

A Character Profile of Aphrodite…-

November 29, 2010

Aphrodite was the Greek Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Fertility.  There are great variations in the stories about her; I will offer a brief general portrait of her, and then I will describe her as she relates to the Trojan myths and to Polyxena in my novel.

Homer tells us she was the daughter of Zeus (Ruler of the Olympian Gods) and Dione, a Titan or Oceanid.  Other sources place her origins in the mid-east, linking her to Ishtar and Astarte (Babylonian and Canaanite deities).  She comes upon the Olympian world in either Cyprus or Cythera.  Her name derives from the Greek word for sea foam, aphros.  She emerges naked from the sea upon a clam shell to the delight of drooling Gods who cannot believe their good fortune, and the dismay of Goddesses who frantically try to cover her up.  At least that’s how Botticelli envisioned the scene in his painting, The Birth of Venus (I’ve spiced it up a bit).

She was married to Hephaestus, the disfigured God of fire and metalworking, who, oddly enough, was uninterested in her; it mattered little to her as she seemed to have carried on affairs with seemingly everyone but him.  Her sexual appetite was voracious, extending to mortals as well as gods.  She bore four children with Ares (God of War), among them Eros (Love), as well as a child with Hermes, the messenger god, and Poseidon (God of the Sea), and Dionysus (God of Wine, Vegetation).  Among her human ‘conquests’ was the Dardanian king, Anchises; she bore him a son, the hero Aeneas.  She wore a magic girdle that allowed her to seduce anyone.  All the signature features connected with love -its intensity and passions, its joys and pleasures, its jealousy, envy, heartache and pain- are attributed to her maneuverings.  It’s easy to see that she may have been the most invoked of the goddesses in everyday life, but she ranked third in the hierarchy of the goddesses, after Hera (Queen of Olympus) and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom, the Arts, and War), probably because the Greeks, being Greeks, esteemed sound reasoning and logic to base emotionalism.  She is usually depicted nude, or partially nude, in sculptures -a rarity for the female gender in Greek art.

Aphrodite was the mythical cause of the Trojan War.  The story goes like this:  The Olympians attended a party celebrating the marriage of the mortal Peleus and the sea-goddess Thetis -the union that spawned Achilles- to which Eris (Goddess of Discord) was not invited.  She showed up anyway but was not admitted entrance so she tossed a golden apple into the crowd with the inscription “For the fairest’ on it.  The Goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each assumed the apple was meant for them and, sure enough, strife erupted among them.  Zeus, not wanting the party spoiled, had Hermes transport the goddesses to Mount Ida, where Paris, handsomest of men and a prince of Troy, was tending a flock; he was to give the golden apple to the goddess of his choosing.  Each goddess provided her own inducement that would lead Paris to favor her; Hera promised him rule over all Asia; Athena wisdom and victory in every battle; Aphrodite the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.  Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite (literature’s famous ‘Judgment of Paris’).  The promise turned out to be Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.  Paris later went there on a diplomatic mission; saw her; they fell in love; he abducted her (actually she went willingly), and the war was on.

Aphrodite would have been more venerated in Troy than in Mycenae or Sparta; she was one of the two main Olympians -the other being Apollo- who clearly favored the Trojans in the war.  For all her faults, Aphrodite remained loyal to people who did her favors.

By contrast, Hera and Athena bore an inordinate hostility towards the Trojans, giving credence to the adage “Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned”.

None of the aforementioned material is in my novel; what follows next is:

Polyxena, facing death by sacrifice, in almost desperation searches for the meaning of her life, hoping an answer to this will bring relief to her distress.  In this, she has a special relationship with Aphrodite, seeing the goddess as a confidante in whom she can divulge her innermost feelings, seeking out the deity’s benevolence in providing the comfort and strength she is in need of.

To you, Immortal Goddess, I reveal my thoughts….As I face death…and try my best to compose myself’, difficult as it is for me, for I must be honest in saying that I truly fear it, I will commit myself to recall how all this came about. … Grant me the solace I seek; spare me the horror that comes from the realization of having lived a futile life.

Polyxena knows that much her own actions led to her fate, but also that other influences had a hand in it.  That she should turn to Aphrodite on this is fitting -after all, it was her love of Achilles, and her later spurning the love of Neoptolemus, that doomed her -and Aphrodite reigns over matters of love.

How do I explain Neoptolemus’s reaction to me?  I have no recollection of ever leading him on to draw the conclusions about my loving him as he did.  Was this the proverbial unrequited love the poets so often lament over?  If so, is this not your handiwork, oh Goddess?

Polyxena runs the entire emotional gamut in imparting her thoughts to Aphrodite, even angrily denouncing the goddess at one point:

You are a cruel goddess, Aphrodite.  More than any of the other deities, you involve yourself in the lives of mortals, bringing about our demise through the pain and suffering you afflict us with.  Greater misfortune has been caused by your interference than all other conspiracies combined.

Their association was conceived in a greater context -as a connection between Polyxena and the reader because the reader, in essence, is Aphrodite.  In revealing her story, her openness with it, she creates the bonds that endear her to the Goddess -i.e. the reader.


The Significance of Historical Love Stories

November 22, 2010

Love is the ingredient that transforms the ordinary to the great.  I think the appeal of  historical love stories is that they strike an accord with the reader in a way that makes the personages very real to us.  We can relate to them, most of us having experienced love in our lives.  Whether the stories are about the famed historical characters themselves, as with Antony and Cleopatra, or about regular lives caught up in epic backgrounds, as in Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago, love’s passion and endurance resonates with us, giving them a human quality than would otherwise not be the case.  It makes their stories timeless, appropriate for any age, because love is eternal.

My own personal favorite example of love’s impact on a great historical character is when Napoleon learns of Josephine’s death.  They had been divorced and out of contact with each other for years, but when the news comes to him, he locks himself up in his room, remaining in total seclusion for three days.  How can anyone who has a heart not be affected by that?  It speaks volumes of his character -and of the power of love.

Polyxena is a love story.

Polyxena’s Love Affairs

November 17, 2010

Polyxena experiences two great love affairs in this novel; one with Antiope, a chief commander of the Amazons, and the other with Achilles.  In each case she is in conflict with her emotions and succumbs unwillingly to them.  With Antiope, her reluctance is  out of bewilderment over being drawn to a same-sex partner, because she had always  previously found her love-interests to be only in men; she surrenders more easily because they have become best of friends and the step towards intimacy seemed a natural enough progression. That she is self-conscious about this gives her a more contemporary view about love.  Her affair is best summed up in her own words.

She was so alluring, her body exquisitely shaped…and I readily concede that I possessed no compunctions in my admiration of her beauty.  That was when I was with her, intoxicated by her sensuousness and overwhelmed by the attraction this held for me, yet at other times, when I was by myself and soberly reflected over this, I severely censured myself for what I considered my aberrant behavior, casting disparagements upon my abuses and feeling a sense of shame over this.  Then I would see her again, and all my self-doubting and aspersions would vanish as I once more fell under her charm.  Such was the emotional turmoil in which I endured my relationship with Antiope, and yet, were I to have a choice over its continuance, I unquestionably would have preferred that this be so.  That was the influence she exerted over me, the sheer appeal of it, pleasurable and insatiable, so that I was utterly seduced by it and in her captivity.

With Achilles, her conflict, as well as her resistance, is greatly heightened because he is Troy’s greatest foe, and any possibility of love existing between them was problematic,  sure to be condemned.  An attraction is almost immediate in their first encounter:

He was standing there, looking us over, and when his eyes met mine, they fixed on their object for an extended duration.  I thought his bluish eyes very expressive and could not turn mine away from him, as if captivated by his gaze…..He removed his helmet and let his fair hair wave freely from its confines, shaking his head.  He was, by any measure, a most handsome man, cleanly shaven, with an almost beautiful face, if such a description might be applied toward that gender.

So is Polyxena’s denial of this:

I could not believe it.  I was standing face-to-face with the man most responsible for the pain and suffering inflicted upon our family. the cruel monster, the heartless beast who had slain noble Hector and Troilus and Polydorus, a mere child, and so many of Troy’s defenders…. I glared at him, my eyes piercing him in my stunned amazement.

After spending more days with him, her anxieties increase as she finds her antipathy towards him breaking down, against all her expectation:

A myriad of emotions swept over me, not all of them well-received, for I could not accept that I was finding myself attracted to him.  No.  This cannot be.  He was the man most responsible for the misery and pain that had been cast upon my life; from my earliest childhood to the very present, my first recollection of the suffering dealt my mother and father, my grief over the deaths of my brothers, my anguish over losing Penthesileia, all my life’s misfortunes and heartaches were connected to the name of Achilles.  That is my dilemma.  The ogre in my life had only a name: Achilles.  He was never an actual person.

But now he existed for me in his true human form, as handsome as a man can ever be, strong, masculine, pleasant if he chose to be so.  Volatile.  Cruel.  Callous.  Yes, he demonstrated all this to me.  But then he also revealed sensitivity, passion, care, even tenderness.  Who was the real Achilles?  One thing was certain, he was no longer just a name.

When the realization comes to her that she has fallen in love with Achilles, she finds the prospect alarming:

Spending an entire day and then a long evening up close with Achilles had an allure of its own, a subliminal seduction in progress, and I often sensed myself unwillingly drawn to him, as if unable to resist the powerful urges dominating me.  His prevailing masculinity, vigorous and strong, inescapable and almost addictive, left me with a longing to be squeezed in his muscular arms, an embrace that would offer me the utmost sense of security from whatever threat.  He was a beautiful being, a paragon of manhood, the prototype of a living Apollo.  I hurled abuses at myself for possessing such thoughts, trying as best as I could to dispel these from my mind, rationalizing  that he was an enemy -the worst of our enemies!-  and nothing fruitful or even desirable could possibly come out of this, only to have the same notions resurging to dominate me once more.  Oh, Aphrodite, help me.  This cannot be happening.

But Aphrodite has cast her spell over them.  When Achilles tells her he is in love with her, she is thrilled:

He said it.  No more speculations about whether he did or not, no more anticipation that he might, no more wishing, wanting, and hoping.  It was true.  He did.

And when Achilles tells her of his own struggle in accepting this, she understands:

He echoed my sentiments to exactness, repeating all the dissonance I was afflicted with, but took the step I was reluctant to take: admitting it.

Yet she still is resistant to come to terms with her true feelings and tells Achilles:

“This is so difficult for me.  I am too absorbed in my worries over what all this means for us.  Were I to admit my love for you, would anything change for us?  You will still wage your battles against Troy.  I will remain Priam’s daughter.  Will our love bring an end to the war?  We know it won’t.”

Aphrodite triumphs over them and their love grows deeper.  By the time they arrive at Troy and must part, they have brought their love to full fruition and are in sorrow over their separation.  A subsequent meeting between them leads to tragic consequences.  She tries to conceal the romance from her family but when her brothers learn of it, they conjure up a scheme to ambush Achilles -they fabricate a story that Polyxena has been banished from the court because of her love for him and that he can pick her up before the city’s main gate.  He comes for her and is slain -she sees it all from the walls.

Achilles is killed before the midway point of the novel, but he is alluded to in many of the later chapters so his presence, and the love that he shared with Polyxena, is felt throughout the book.   That’s why I consider this as mainly a love story.

How Polyxena fits into Greek Mythology…

November 5, 2010

Iphigenia was sacrificed for the Greeks, signifying the beginning of the Trojan War with the launching of Greek ships. Polyxena is Iphigenia’s Trojan counterpart. Polyxena, however, was sacrificed in Troy, signifying the end of the war.

Polyxena was the youngest daughter of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecuba.

According to legend, Polyxena went with her brother Troilus to a fountain where he watered his horse. Achilles appeared and slew Troilus. When Achilles caught sight of Polyxena, he fell in love with her.

And this is the way in which love always seems to exist in the realm of mythology.  Love in Greek Mythology did not limit its effects to the mere mortal. The gods often played starring roles in these tales, and often showed their human traits like jealousy and fear. However, in the sad case of Polyxena, her love was fatal in that it was the folly of man, to be specific, that of Achilles, who either wanted her sacrificed so that she may marry him in the afterlife, or because he felt she had or would betray him.

In Seneca’s play Troades, Helen laments Polyxena’s fate:

Miserable Polyxena, whom Achilles commands be surrendered to him and to be sacrificed before his own ashes, so that he may be married in the Elysian fields.

In stories of Mythology, it is often the case that love leads to tragedy. One must wonder whether or not it was a sign of the times that brought such sadness and cynicism in their stories of love, or if the idea of love itself was a powerful as the myths assigned to them.

Many of these issues are explored in my novel Polyxena, where I do go in an flesh out how some of this played out, however tragic it came to be. I wonder what some of you think of stories such as these. Is love that powerful that it must be satisfied by sacrifice in the most literal of terms?

Until next week…