Archive for January, 2011

On The Trojans

January 31, 2011

Who were the Trojans?   Many scholars think they were Phrygians, a Greek speaking people who moved into western Anatolia around the collapse of the Hittite Empire as part of the movement attributed to the Sea People.  Herodotus says the Phrygians were originally from Macedonia and Thrace, but there are problems with the chronology; for one thing, the demise of the Hittites occurred around 1200 BCE, which is also the time in which the Troy of the Iliad was destroyed (its fall placed sometime from 1250 to 1184 BCE).   Also in the Iliad the Phrygians are identified as allies of Troy in the Trojan War.  That part can be explained by Phrygia being a smaller state than at first because other peoples, namely the Mysians, Lycians, and Lydians had also moved into the land and formed their own kingdoms (but again, chronology raises questions -these kingdoms being of a later time period, yet also described as Troy’s allies in the Iliad). 

Troy (Ilium or Ilios in Greek, Truva in Turkish), now considered to be the site found near Hissarlik in Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann, was found to predate the Phrygians, and actually goes back to around 3000-2500 BCE and may have been Hittite city then.  It had a Hittite name, Wilusa or Truwisa; there are other Hittite connections, such as the names of kings, suggesting them as the Trojans of the Iliad. 

Language does not help because in mythology there are no language barriers; no matter how remote the people exist (the Amazons, Colchis in Jason and the Argonauts) they speak the same language and are able to communicate with everyone else.  So we are left with the same question: who were the Trojans?  No matter what the answer, it has no impact on the greatness of the stories that have been written about them.  Troy’s appeal remains timeless, and that we definitely owe to the Greeks.  So my appreciation is for the Greeks, for Homer, and their glorious civilization.

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My Story’s Appeal

January 27, 2011

Writing a book about Troy is like writing one about the Alamo -the reader knows how the story ends.  I wrote my novel with the expectation that readers had a familiarity with the stories about Troy and even knew of Polyxena’s fate.  So why did I bother?  Isn’t that a let-down for the reader?  My answer to that is: it doesn’t matter knowing what happens to her -that’s not the story’s appeal.  I strove for something more meaningful and enduring.

By making the reader synonymous with Aphrodite, the goddess in whom Polyxena confides her thoughts, I wanted to create an emotional bond between the two. My aim was, therefore, to endear the reader to her -even falling in love with her- and in this sentimental attachment feeling her hopes and fears, her joys and sorrows, wanting things to be different for her, and admiring her courageous struggle to overcome her fear of death.  It is this interaction with Aphrodite that most appeals to the reader.  That’s why my story had to be written in the first person; I would have failed in achieving this connection if she had not related it from her own perspective, as she lived it -a story deeply personal, touching us.  Anyway, that was my objective.

 Have I succeeded?  From some of the feedback I’ve gotten -I would say yes.  But it’s up the reader to best judge that.  My hope is that, after having read this novel, readers will be able to say of Polyxena:  I know her because I was, after all, the deity in whom she related her deepest feelings.

On the Amazons

January 24, 2011

Greek mythology is our source on the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women who have no use for men.  Bellerophon fights them; Jason knows them; Heracles (Hercules) kills one of their queens, Hippolyte, to get her girdle as one of his twelve labors; Theseus abducts another of their queens, Antiope (or a different Hippolyte), who bears him a son;  Homer has Priam describing them as ‘a match for men in war’ in the Iliad.  We know their queens through the myths:  Antiope, Hippolyte, Melanippe, Myrine, Penthesileia (some share the same name).  They were very war-like, fierce in battle, and united by one common bond: their loathing of men.  The myths originally placed their homeland along the southeastern shores of the Black Sea, with Themiscyra their main city.  The more the Greeks learned of geography, the further remote they placed their domain into central Asia, keeping them on the outer edge of the known civilized world.  

In the Trojan myths, Penthesileia and her Amazons come to Troy’s assistance a short time after Hector’s funeral and do a lot of damage.  Achilles kills her and is said to have fallen in love with her dying or dead body; he is mocked for this by Thersites, an interesting disfigured malcontent among the Greeks, and so also kills him (in front of Polyxena in my novel, shocking her to the core).     

The name Amazon means ‘breastless’ and was given them because they supposedly seared off their right breast so it would not interfere with bowstrings when firing arrows. According to Hippocrates, this was done while the girls were still babies with a red-hot bronze instrument constructed for this purpose.  They were horse-soldiers, often depicted in art on horseback, and may actually be western civilization’s earliest description of an all mounted force, with the bow and arrow their weapon of choice, although they also wielded javelins, and carried axes and a crescent shaped shield for close-order combat.  They perpetuated their culture by having sexual contact with the men of neighboring tribes at periodic intervals, by some accounts permitting only a third of their numbers to engage in each of these so that eventual pregnancies would not impede their ability to fight.  They reared only the girls, the boys being sent back to their father’s tribes, killed, mutilated (emasculated), or enslaved (to do womanly duties).  Training and discipline was harsh, exposing the girls to rigorous exercise and extremes of weather to inure them to a hard warrior’s life.  They worshipped Ares, God of War, and Artemis, virgin Goddess of Wildlife and Hunting.   To this day, they continue to fascinate us.

 Although there have been archaeological attempts to prove the Amazons existed, it is generally held that, as written about, they are purely mythical.  Evidence has been found that there were women of prominence in some ancient cultures, namely the Scythians and Sarmatians, but none of these findings confirm an exclusively female society. 

 For one-third of my novel, Polyxena is away from Troy, most of that time spent with the Amazons.  I am more benign to the Amazons than the myths suggest, with Polyxena finding some appeal in their culture and falling in love with Antiope, a chief commander in Penthesileia’s army.

Taking Poetic License

January 19, 2011

By an interesting coincidence, I happened to be at the ruins of Mycenae (Agamemnon’s haunts) when Wolfgang Peterson’s movie Troy made its debut in Europe (in May, 2004). I was with Archaeological Tours and everyone in our group decided we had to see it when we got back to the states.  And so I did: I thought it was a good movie (Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles was underappreciated by the critics, in my opinion), but I was amazed at the poetic license taken in it.  Let me briefly compare what was presented in the movie with the classical literature on the subject.

In the movie:  The war lasts a few weeks at most; Briseis is a relative of Hector and Priam, and Apollo’s priestess; Paris is quite young; Hector kills Menelaus (my jaw dropped on seeing this); Hector kills Ajax of Salamis; Achilles participates in the fall of Troy; Paris flees from burning Troy with Helen; Briseis kills Agamemnon (my jaw dropped again).

In classical literature:  The war lasts for ten years; Briseis is the daughter of the king of Lyrnessus, with no connection to the House of Troy; Cassandra, not Briseis, is Apollo’s priestess; Paris is the second oldest of Priam’s many sons (after Hector); Menelaus survives the war and reclaims Helen and eventually the two return to Sparta; Ajax of Salamis goes mad and kills himself; Achilles is killed before Troy falls; Paris is killed before Troy falls; Agamemnon returns to Mycenae where he is carved up by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, while taking a bath.     

A question arises here: how far can we go in exercising poetic license?  Apparently there is no limit to this, the guiding principle being do whatever you must do to make a story coherent, providing there is a modicum of resemblance to original works.  Does it matter?  Probably not; there have always been deviations made in such presentations.  So it is mainly a matter of honor, rather than obligation, to be faithful to original sources when writing on the subjects they introduced to the world (this applies only to fiction). 

Have I taken poetic license with Polyxena?  Yes I have.  I’ve reconstructed the last ten months of Polyxena’s life, hardly written about, so, in that respect, her entire story, except for her death, is my own creation.  Her stay with the Amazons was my idea, but once she returns to Troy, I faithfully follow the myths.  The events then described, with the people  involved, their personalities and attributes, and their fate -in all this, I tried to be true to what is said about it, making but two exceptions (Neoptolemus infatuated with Polyxena; Helenus, her brother, allowing himself to be taken captive by the Greeks). 

In one respect, I may have taken major poetic license (I consider all my others as minor).  In my novel, Achilles and Polyxena consummate their love for each other; ancient writers placed great value on Polyxena being a virgin when sacrificed, attaching an untarnished purity to this, I think.  I get around this by not having her tell anyone of her affair, so no one except Aphrodite (i.e. the reader) knows.  To those around her, she remains quite pure, unblemished as it were, and true to the literature.

On Priam

January 17, 2011

I thought I should briefly say something about Polyxena’s relationship with her father, Priam, King of Troy, a major character in my novel.  She very much loves him and is closer to him than her mother and could even be said to have an Electra complex.  A lot of this is due to her own interests paralleling those of Priam (the politics and conduct of the war, riding horses, etc.), regarding him as: …my loving father, King Priam, whom I adored more than anyone.  She describes him as: Tall and lean, with his whitened hair and beard, he appeared the perfect embodiment of dignity and kingship, a truly majestic figure….I felt a comfort in his presence; I could have sworn he was thinking what I was thinking.  She appreciates his confidence in her when deciding to send her as an envoy to the Amazons:  I savored the element of excitement that surrounded this mission, an opportunity to be of true value to my father’s objectives, to please him in a most meaningful way.  

When she returns to her life in Troy, with its clear demarcation of men’s and women’s roles, Polyxena finds the going rough, but is helped by Priam:  My frustration was alleviated somewhat by the curious behavior of my father who met with me frequently in private, usually in the courtyard, after having concluded one of his meetings, and asked me what I thought about some of the decisions that had been made….His regard for my opinion helped a lot in giving purpose to my otherwise meaningless existence -I am being hard on myself- and kept me stimulated and abreast of the current problems besetting our city.  I looked forward to my sessions with him, as they constituted the most compelling part of the day for me.

While her mother is dismayed over her being unmarried and engaged in unfeminine pursuits such as riding her horse, she says this of her father:  None of the things that so preoccupied my mother about me seemed to matter to him.  Best of all, he had no problem with my single status, never once alluding to it, accepting it as perfectly normal, even making me feel quite good about it.  He saw me as a true individual, tolerating my idiosyncrasies, recognizing the boredom my womanly gatherings posed for me, and understanding the pleasures I derived from riding Zephyrus.  He actually admired my skill in horsemanship, thinking it worthy of a royal princess.  In every respect, his views vividly contrasted those of my mother’s concerning me.  That is why I looked so adoringly upon him.  And although he diligently avoided making references to my mother, he ignored her designs for me as much as I did, dismissing these as not applicable to me.  The importance this had for me, not only in elevating my spirit, but in stimulating my interests, was immeasurable.

 Sad to say, Polyxena was to see her father slain when the Greeks take Troy.

On Cassandra…

January 14, 2011

I want to comment on Polyxena’s clairvoyant sister, Cassandra.  I’ve stated in a previous blog how Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo in having the ability to foresee the future but never being believed by anyone.  He placed this curse on her because, as his priestess, she refused to give up her chastity for him (this makes one ponder what duties such functions incurred).  Cassandra is a pathetic figure, hounded by misfortune.  Not only was she never believed, but even held to be mad; she lost her lover, Coroebus, slain by Neoptolemus; she was raped by Ajax of Locris on the night Troy fell; she was taken by Agamemnon as a concubine, only to be then slain along with him by the king’s wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, in Mycenae (she predicts this fate to Polyxena).

Polyxena has an interesting relationship with Cassandra.  For much of my novel, she views her sister as unsociable and estranged from the rest of the family, but often seeks her out, wanting her advice, yet, true to Apollo’s curse, never taking it.  She tells us: I once made a record of her prophecies regarding coming events and was astonished to learn she had been correct in all her predictions.  In spite of this, I am ashamed to admit that I regularly disputed her warnings and even ignored them. They are alike in some ways; both exhibit an independent spirit and shun the womanly social gatherings in the palace.  Polyxena’s mother, Hecuba, speaks about this:  “My other disagreeable daughter.  You’re becoming more like her every day, Polyxena.  She hides from me in Apollo’s temple, you in your riding.  Why can’t you two behave as normal women?”

Cassandra warns Polyxena that Neoptolemus will prove her undoing, but she minimizes the threat in her thinking:  What else could place me in danger of Neoptolemus except the fall of the city itself.  Otherwise I obviously would be able to shun him.  But that would have horrible consequences for all of us, not just me.  This told me that, while I may be in danger, my peril was no worse than anyone else’s….Increasingly her admonitions seemed less and less relevant to my safety.  I do wish she was less dramatic in her presentations.

After Troy falls, and the Trojan women are held captive in their compound, Polyxena warms up to Cassandra, becoming close to her and admiring her toughness:  Cassandra remained as steady as a rock under our duress, never complaining or even lamenting our fate….I was drawn to her constancy, her poise significantly alleviating the fears dogging me, and spent a lot of time with her, seeking out the reassurance she instilled in me.

When Polyxena learns she is doomed and tells Cassandra about it, her sister says: “Have courage, Polyxena.  Accept what the fates have decreed for you.  Let the Greeks know the mettle Trojan women are made of.” This comforts Polyxena:  She pleased me with those words, instilling in me a resolve to bravely embrace the end in store for me.  I was not going to depart this world bemoaning my destiny, whimpering like a child, giving the Greeks the pleasure of seeing me stripped of my dignity, cowardly in my exhortations for mercy.  Once again, Cassandra gave me the strength of will to undergo the ordeal waiting for me.  I was truly indebted to her. In the end, Polyxena draws much of her courage from Cassandra.

Character Profile on Helen of Troy…

January 10, 2011

Helen, a name synonymous with Troy itself; ‘golden-haired Helen’, Homer describes her; the most beautiful woman in the world circa 1200 BCE, with ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’.  I will briefly comment on how she is perceived by Polyxena.

When Polyxena first meets a squad of Amazons, a rather homely looking bunch, she makes an allusion to Helen: No ship would be launched for their sake.  And when she sees their commander, the stunningly beautiful Antiope, she again makes that allusion: Even Helen would have found serious competition in her. So Helen is the personification of beauty, the definitive standard by which it is compared and judged.

Is Polyxena envious of Helen’s beauty?  I do hint that she might be, but in a different sense.  By that I mean:  Helen is a generation older, in her mid-thirties; Polyxena, having a good self-image of her own, would not have regarded Helen a rival for suitors, seeing her as a family member, growing up with her, but she also would have become aware of how men reacted to her, observing their behavior in her presence.  This awareness is not often well received by Polyxena.  She makes inferences to that throughout my story; an example of this happens when she is being celebrated on her return to Troy: “What an extraordinary adventure you’ve had,” said Deiphobus, glancing more at Helen than me, tactless to be sure and quite annoying to me. Another illustration is when Helen must choose a new husband:  No raving beauty like Helen was going to avert the competition to possess her that would result out of her being single again.  An ordinary woman might have been left to her own devices….but never Helen, the most sought-after woman that ever lived.  Men craved her; they always had.   Most frustrating to Polyxena is how men always hold Helen blameless in things, even her father, Priam:  Despite this, he was ever cordial to Helen and never once alluded to her having contributed to the misery that plagued him.  She had that effect on men; they were endlessly willing to forgive her -for everything!- and sought to endear themselves to her.  That is how it has always been, from the very beginning to the present……Helen was absolved of any transgressions in the fate befalling Troy, the responsibility being continuously attributed to the gods instead.   In today’s language, we call that ‘sucking up to her’.

The power that Helen’s beauty wields over men is best demonstrated on the night Troy falls, when Polyxena describes the scene where Menelaus, the Spartan king Helen had forsaken, again meets her:

Menelaus strode up to Helen, bent on avenging the injury and humiliation she caused him.  He raised his sword -did I misjudge him?- and for an instant there, I thought he might indeed kill her.  But then she looked at him, tears streaming from her face, and if ever there was a sight to melt a man’s heart, it was that of Helen in grief, peering into his eyes, her lovely face at its pitiful best, amplifying her suffering.  He paused in his observation and then sheathed his weapon.  Helen’s future was secure.

My choice of words ‘pitiful best’ reveals Polyxena’s feelings.

My Anti-War Theme…

January 5, 2011

I would like to make some comments on a basic anti-war theme I strove for in writing my novel.  War is my story’s true antagonist, pitiless in inflicting its misery on the lives of everyone caught in its vicious grip.  I tried to portray the war in its starkest terms, without glory or redeeming virtues, exacting its toll on victims, irrespective of their complicity or innocence in its cause, but mainly on how its cruelty prevails in Polyxena’s life, inflicting grief and suffering on her.

Although having undergone deep sorrow over the loss of her brothers, especially Hector, it is not until Polyxena accompanies the Amazons on their operation against the Greek-occupied cities that she experiences the full gravity of war, up close and personal, in all its savage fury.  When she witnesses the execution of young Greek captives on orders of Penthesileia, the Amazon queen, after the battle at Otrea, she is horror-stricken, unable to conceal her shock -even angrily denouncing Penthesileia for it. “They surrendered to you!  They placed their lives in your keeping.  You owed them your protection…” To which Penthesileia storms back, “Do not try to lecture me, foolish woman….I asked you to accompany us because I believed you had what it takes to be one of us.  I was wrong.  You will never be an Amazon.” Polyxena then sulks in her tent, upset and suffering the worst misgivings over what she had done.

I did not know how to face Penthesileia after my emotional outburst and tried to rationalize my conduct as appropriate although now beset with much doubt over it.  The reason for the queen being here was to assist Troy in winning the war -what she did favored us- and I was out of line to condemn her actions and possibly jeopardize her helping us.  I was so appalled over the killings, the sheer cruelty of it, that I could not erase the image from my mind.

Like any good commander concerned about the welfare of the troops, Penthesileia comes into the tent and, after a heart to heart talk, accepts Polyxena back in her good graces. Polyxena next experiences an even bloodier battle at Pedasus, and her aversion begins to be supplanted by the grim realities war entails:

I also learned during this time that my outburst at Otrea over the fate of the captives was not as clear an issue as I then thought.  We were an army on the move and had no means by which we could hold prisoners, that is, without encumbering ourselves with burdens we could hardly afford.  We had no way of feeding them or even guarding them if we were to go into battle; I suppose we could have disarmed them and then let them go, but that guaranteed no security for us that they would not fight us again.  Penthesileia was right in censuring me; the matter was problematic at best….I hated war, for it imposed exceptions on us that contravened our better moral judgments, sacrificing these for the sake of the expediency that featured paramount under battlefield conditions……War is cruelty.  In its harshness, it reduces us to compassionless participants, stealing from us our benign tendencies, and hardening our nature to the savagery that defines it.

When she returns to Troy, Polyxena learns that all her efforts with the Amazons were for nothing.  Her father, Priam, could not implement his grand strategy because he had been deserted by one of his major allies; he tells her:  “Such are the fortunes of war, my dear. All the planning, the spying and scheming, the maneuverings, can disintegrate in an instant.” Polyxena becomes physically ill hearing this:

Everything we did was for absolutely nothing.  The battles we fought, the casualties we sustained, the slaughter of a thousand Greeks at Otrea, Penthesileia’s death, all for nothing…. Everything was a waste.  I felt myself getting sick.

As the siege at Troy continues, with one inconclusive battle after another, Polyxena grapples with the futility of it all.  After one particular costly engagement, she tells us:

I remained by the gate, looking out across the field, horror-struck at the extent of the slaughter that had taken place.  The dead were all about, littering the expanse in front of me, greater in number than in any battle the Amazons had fought while I was with them, and all for no gain.

She then thinks the unthinkable:

I found it incomprehensible how the leaders who decided to wage this war could still hold their units together after such an inconclusive bloodbath…..I would have expected, at some point, the warriors to have rebelled over the uselessness of their exertions.  The personal motivation of each of them had to suffer on that account.  Yet they persisted, allowing themselves to be guided into one disaster after another, with no reward in sight for any of them, facing no other reality than deferring the death that eventually might come to them.  Could it be that they now so personalized this war that no other priority existed for them except victory, even if it meant their death?  How could any sane person still have hopes of winning after the magnitude of today’s carnage?

What Polyxena is suggesting here is military heresy, questioning why soldiers do not mutiny when badly led (officers of every military in the world will cringe when reading this).  She also tells us of her continued difficulties in coping with the endless killing:

If ever I came to believe that eventually I would get accustomed to the slaughter and inure my sensibilities against its horrors, this notion was eclipsed every time the reality of the situation confronted me.  It always impacted with severity upon me, never easier the next time around, afflicting me with the same pain and dismay I felt after my first introduction to the cruelty of war.

These are sober contemplations; my novel was not written to be just another story; it was meant to be thought-provoking.

Protected: Neoptolemus, an envious villain.

January 3, 2011

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