The heroine of my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, is an archaeologist, passionate about unearthing the treasures of past civilisations and studying them to bring meaning to modern times. At the start of the book Oriel takes on a new commission: to travel to the Greek island of Helios and join a team of divers on the subsea excavation of a wreck dating back to Roman times.
Oriel’s boss on the project is Damian Lekkas, manager and owner of Helios. Like Oriel, he is passionate about archaeology – but most of all, he is passionate about the Greek islands which are his home; I write: ‘a love of these islands was in Damian’s blood, at the very core of his heart’. As part of the research for the excavation project, he takes Oriel on an overnight trip to one of the most significant of these islands, Delos.
Approaching Delos by boat, an unwitting visitor may wonder what makes this island so special. It is small, just over three square kilometres, and from a distance looks like little more than a rocky outcrop jutting out of the blue waters of the Aegean Sea. But as you near, your eye starts to pick out lines amid the rocks: columns, walls – ruins.
Delos is, quite simply, an archaeologist’s heaven. The island has more excavations than any other site in the Mediterranean – it is the place to visit if you are interested in Ancient Greek history and archaeology.
Here is a description of this ‘sacred isle’ written by the poet and scholar Callimachus:
The sacred isle its deep foundations forms
Unshook by winds, uninjured by the deep.
High o’er the waves appears the Cynthian steep;
And from the flood the sea-mew bends his course
O’er cliffs impervious to the swiftest horse
Around the rocks the Icarian surges roar,
Collect new foam, and whiten all the shore
Beneath the lonely caves, and breezy plain
Where fishers dwelt of old above the main.
No wonder Delos, first in rank, is placed
Amid the sister isles on ocean’s breast.
This description of the island was penned back in the 3rd century BC. By the time of Homer’s The Odyssey (see http://hannahfielding.net/the-iliad-and-the-odyssey/), in the 8th century BC, Delos was recognised as the legendary birthplace of Apollo, the god of the sun, and his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the moon, and as such it became a major cultural centre of the Ancient Greek world.
Here is a glimpse of just some of the archaeological sites that Damian and Oriel visit on the island:
[Picture credit: Bernard Gagnon]
Meeting halls, houses, market squares, temples, theatres… there is so much to discover on Delos. My own favourite part is the ‘Terrace of the Lions’ (pictured below). Like the Egyptian avenue of sphinxes at the temple of Karnak, here twelve lions carved from Naxian marble stood along the Sacred Way. Remaining today are five beautifully preserved lions, snarling silently and guarding the sanctuary.
On Delos, there is so much to feed an archaeologist’s soul. But Oriel finds it is not only the history of the place that affects her. There is a beauty to this place, which is cast in a unique light. ‘The light on Delos has a strange glitter that really dazzles the eyes,’ Damian explains. ‘It’s been described as the “whirling of silver wheels”.’ The whole atmosphere of the island soothes Oriel; she finds ‘an absolute peace’ has crept into her heart.
As Damien puts it: ‘Pure air, good water, sunshine, the beautiful surroundings of nature… these are God’s means for a great life.’ On Delos, Oriel finds this… and much more besides. After all, I did mention that this was to be an overnight trip, which will mean camping on the slopes of Mount Cynthus all alone, a man and a woman amid thousands of years of history.
Chastity. It is a word that is synonymous with virtue and with purity (it is derived from the Latin word castus, which means ‘pure’). For centuries, chastity has been held in high regard, especially by the Church. So it must follow, naturally, that being chaste is a good and admirable thing?
Yes, it so follows if your name is Oriel Anderson and you are the heroine of my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. But if your name is Damian Lekkas and you are the hero of the book – no, chastity, that traditional, restraining practice, is not in favour.
Damian has grown up on the Greek island of Helios. Cut off from the mainland, it is an old-fashioned place; stuck in bygone times, in fact. The islanders engage in what Damian calls ‘chastity-worship’, and to his mind this is stupidity, an unhealthy repression of natural human drives.
He shows Oriel a tree on the island called Monk’s Pepper, and also known as the Chastity Tree. ‘In ancient times it was believed to be an anti-aphrodisiac,’ he explains. ‘Women used part of the plant on their bedding, in Pliny’s words “to cool the heat of lust” during the time of the Thesmophoria, when Athenian women left their husbands’ beds to remain ritually chaste. Monks also sat under it to quieten their libidos.’
While interested in the history of his people and respectful of plenty of the old traditions, Damian is the new leader of Helios and he sees it as his role to bring the islanders into the modern time; and that includes taking a new, more emancipated approach to relationships between men and women. Not only does he believe that ‘the thirst of desire cannot be quenched by the cold wine of chastity’, he is adamant that no one should not have to repress their sexuality.
In fact, Damian finds the very idea of chastity abhorrent, ‘an insult to the Creator and an abomination to man’ – and, of course, to woman. He is of the same mind as the Nobel Prize-winning writer Anatole France, who wrote, ‘Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest.’ It is hard to argue otherwise when one considers the extreme of chastity, the chastity belt, used during the Crusades to ensure a woman remained faithful to her husband – they were liable to cause infection, which could lead to sepsis and, ultimately, death!
Of course, all women have the right to choose their own path when it comes to sexuality, and Damian respects that in Oriel. In challenging her on this subject, he is encouraging her to unlock the shackles in which she may feel society has placed her (remember, the book is set during the 1970s). She holds the key; she has the power. It is entirely her choice whether to be chaste… or to satiate the ‘thirst of desire’.
When I was in my early twenties, I visited a fortune teller. I entered her room sceptical; I left it… intrigued. To this day, this intrigue permeates my stories, in the form a soothsayer character in each novel who attempts to guide the heroine on her path in life. These philosophical characters are fascinating to write, because they demand that I research the traditions, beliefs and superstitions of a particular culture and their ‘wise person’, be it a shaman or witchdoctor, a philosopher or gypsy.
For my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, I created the character Delia:
Damian and Oriel came out of the cave and, just as they were going to move off to continue their climb, they saw crouching on a step a shrivelled hag – a gaunt, forbidding figure with a hooked nose and parchment-brown skin. Tousled grey hair, like that of a Skye terrier, hung over her forehead, half concealing a pair of coal-black eyes. She stood up as Damian and Oriel approached, scrutinizing them, and barred their way with a claw-like hand. She was much taller and stronger-looking than she had appeared when seated, and it was as if her presence suddenly seemed to take up the whole of the island: the sky, the rock, and the surrounding sea.
Delia is known on the island of Helios as ‘the Oracle’. Upon meeting Damian and Oriel, she is compelled to warn them of what is to come. To Damian, she says: ‘Your journey is long, handsome Odysseus, in your toil for happiness. It might be in reach but treachery, fire and destruction surround… Only your courage and your determination will carry you through the dark times ahead.’
When Damian asks what the outcome will be, Delia’s answer is simple but clear: ‘Tò peprōménon phygeîn adýnaton. It is impossible to escape from what is destined.’
Delia is like a modern-day priestess of the gods. Damian and Oriel have bumped into her outside a cave on the island called the Grotto of Heracles, where the oracles were delivered in Hellenistic times. Delia is the Oracle, and she receives the oracles at the oracle: you see, the ancient Greeks used the word ‘oracle’ to mean the priest who hears messages from the gods, and the place where the priest receives that message, and the message itself.
Oriel may be somewhat taken aback and unsettled by Delia’s messages – especially when the old woman goes on to warn Oriel about what is to come for her – but the Ancient Greeks would not have been. They believed that communication with the gods was possible in certain places, through certain people, and that the gods took an interest in mortal lives and would offer guidance and glimpses of the future.
The Grotto of Heracles would have been the oracle for Helios, and its priest would have helped the people of the island. But the place to go in Ancient Greece if you really wanted to get close to the gods and receive wise advice from the most powerful of priests was Delphi in central Greece. There, the High Priestess Pythia served as the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo (pictured), making prophecies on the seventh day of the month on everything from politics and warfare to laws and personal problems. According to a test conducted by the king of Lydia, Croesus, in 560 BC on the most prominent oracles in the world, Pythia was the most accurate in her predictions – although she could be a little vague, leaving her wisdom very much up to the receiver’s interpretation.
Interpretation is everything when it comes to ‘words of wisdom’ in my novels. I use the soothsayer character to make a heroine question their past, present and future, but it is up to her to decide which parts of a prophecy should be heeded and how accurate that prophecy may be.
It is all too easy to dismiss, as Oriel is inclined to do, such oracles as ‘nonsense’. But the people of all ancient civilisations believed in oracles, and at the very least we should respect that belief, if not find meaning it. For as Socrates said in 440 BC, when the Oracle at Delphi declared him to be the wisest man, ‘The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.’ So who are we to say oracles were not messengers of the gods, and that we may not encounter one to this very day?
We are into the Twelve Days of Christmas (the Twelvetide), that period between Christmas Day and the Twelfth Night before Epiphany. For most people worldwide, it’s a time of feasting and merriment as we celebrate the Nativity. But for the people of Greece, it is also a time to beware… goblins!
I learned about the Kallikantzaroi (singular: Kallikantzaros) while researching my new novel Aphrodite’s Tears, which required digging deep into legends and mythology associated with Greece through the ages. There are all sorts of old stories about these ugly creatures in Greece – and also further afield in Serbia, Turkey and Bulgaria.
Descriptions of the Kallikantzaroi vary from the fairly benign to the downright gruesome. At their best, they are ‘beautiful centaurs’ (the translation of the Greek word). At their worst, they are small, dark creatures with a human aspect but animal parts – rat tails or donkey ears or monkey arms or boar tusks. Their eyes burn with a devilish fire, but they don’t see well. They smell terrible, no doubt in part due to their diet: insects and frogs. They are mischievous and impish, like Irish leprechauns.
Legend has it that the Kallikantzaroi dwell underground, busily sawing away at the Tree of Life, but during the Twelve Days of Christmas they forget their task because a route opens to the surface. Up they swarm and into people’s homes (via their chimneys) to wreak havoc.
Whatever goes wrong during this 12-day period, you can blame it on these goblins. Milk gone off? Blame the Kallikantzaroi. Fire gone out? That will be the Kallikantzaroi. All of your Christmas food eaten? A whole pack of Kallikantzaroi descended on you!
So how can a Greek family protect themselves from these troublesome visitors? Here are some old traditions:
* Keep a fire burning at all times in the fireplace to block the Kallikantzaroi’s entry. An optional extra: throw old, smelly shoes and salt onto the fire to repel them.
* Hang food offerings inside the chimney – sweets or meat.
* Paint a black ‘no goblins welcome’ cross on your front door.
* Sprinkle holy water around each room of house once a day. (It is customary in Greece to put out a wooden bowl over the Christmas period, over which is hung a cross wrapped in basil.)
* Best of all, leave out a colander to distract any Kallikantzaros who makes it past your defences. Apparently, Kallikantzaroi are so stupid that they cannot count higher than two, and their attempt to count all the holes in the colander will keep them out of mischief until morning. (According to some sources, if they manage to count to three – the holy number – they will combust.)
Come morning, you are granted a reprieve from worrying about the Kallikantzaroi: like so many magical creatures, they only come out at night (and burn up in sunlight like vampires).
You may in fact be more worried about turning into one yourself. According to legend, if you were born during the Twelve Days of Christmas then you could transform into one of these goblins, unless your parents took preventative measures: binding you in garlic and straw, or (I can barely stand to write it) dangling you over a fire until your toenails blackened!
The stories of the Kallikantzaroi are colourful indeed, but with a dark undercurrent – as is so often the case with folklore. I loved stories like this, told by my governess, when I was a child; but how they frightened me as well. I think, had I grown up in Greece, I would certainly have wanted the fire left burning all day and night. In fact, it’s tempting to do so even now – and surely it wouldn’t hurt to leave out the colander, just in case…
In the bottom drawer of my desk, I keep a scrapbook, within which I have pasted mementos of my travels. The book falls open on a particular double-page spread, and on those pages are photographs of an ancient site beneath a starry sky, and a ticket stub for an open-air ballet production.
The ballet was Sleeping Beauty. The site was the Acropolis. The evening, many years ago now, was one of the most memorable of my life – and an inspiration for my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, which is rich in Greek history and mythology.
No doubt you have heard of the Acropolis in Athens. Perhaps you have been fortunate enough to visit it yourself. But how well do you know the history of this most famous of Greek landmarks? Here are eight things to know about the Acropolis:
1. The word ‘acropolis’ means ‘highest city’. The Acropolis is a group of buildings constructed on top of a big rock overlooking the city of Athens. The hilltop situation was important for two reasons: military strategy (the Acropolis is a citadel) and god appeasement. Effectively, the Acropolis was a home for the goddess Athena, patron of Athens.
2. Buildings were erected over a long time on the hill, but the most famous parts were built in the fifth century BC to stand as a unique monument to the arts and to wisdom. The man with the vision was the statesman Pericles, and the sculptor Phidias guided the creators of what would become the most important architectural and artistic project of Ancient Greece.
3. The Acropolis is not the only acropolis in Greece by any means. But because of its importance and its position in the capital, it became ‘the’ Acropolis.
4. According to Ancient Greece mythology, the founder and first king of Athens was Cecrops. He was half man, half serpent. When the goddess Athena competed for the city of Athens against Poseidon, Cecrops acted as judge – and he decided that she had won the race to the Acropolis. Thus she became patron of Athens, and the Acropolis became known as Cecropia.
5. Of the structures that can be seen today (albeit as ruins), the most famous are the temples dedicated to Athena – the Parthenon (pictured), the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike. Also significant and impressive are the Propylaea (the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, never completed) and the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, dedicated to Dionysus, god of plays and wine.
6. The Parthenon was constructed of marble from Mount Pentelicus. Pity the workers who had to haul all that marble to the Acropolis site – it weighed 22,000 tons!
7. The Acropolis is a supreme example of Doric and Ionian architecture. Think lots of sturdy fluted columns, arranged with mathematical precision, and detailed sculpted friezes.
8. The Acropolis Museum houses all kinds of artefacts removed from the site. Not on display there, however, are the so-called Elgin Marbles. These sculptures were made during the sculptor Phidias’s time for the Acropolis and displayed there – until, in 1801, the 7th Earl of Elgin got the Ottoman Empire government to agree to his taking them. A furore erupted in Britain over his actions, but he was ultimately exonerated. To this day, despite long-standing Greek protests, the sculptures are installed in the British Museum.