No doubt you’ve heard the term ‘opening a Pandora’s box’ before. It’s used to express that an action that may seem small or inconsequential may in fact create lots of unforeseeable difficulties and heartache.
‘Be careful, Oriel,’ I could tell the heroine of my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. ‘Taking that archaeology posting on the Greek island of Helios; working for that proud, autocratic man, Damian; digging about not only in the ancient past, but in the history of this island and its family and in your own romantic history – you’d be opening a Pandora’s box…’
In other words: be warned!
The warning tone of ‘opening a Pandora’s box’ is implicit and easily understood. But do you know what the expression actually means? Who exactly was this Pandora?
Aphrodite’s Tears was a hint: as my new novel is inspired by the stories of Greek mythology, so are many of our modern references: Herculean task, Trojan horse, Achilles’ heel, Midas touch – and Pandora’s box.
According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the very first mortal woman. Her name means ‘all-giving’, and yet she was never meant to be beneficent.
It was the Titan Prometheus who had stirred the waters, when he created man, shaping him from clay, and then stealing for man the fire of the heavens, so that he may become civilised. The Greek god Zeus was furious by this theft. He sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment, binding him to a rock where he would be attacked daily by the personification of Zeus as an eagle. Mankind, meanwhile, needed something to balance out the huge power they had been given, Zeus decided, and that took the form of Pandora. He commanded Hephaestus and Athena to create the first woman out of the earth. She was bestowed with gifts from all the gods to make her a talented and beautiful creature – but deceitful, treacherous, evil; capable of causing the downfall of man.
According to the poet Hesiod, Zeus gave Pandora a jar (not, in fact, a box; that is based on a mistranslation of ancient Greek texts) and gave her strict instructions not to open it. Of course, curiosity compelled her just to take a little peek – and as she opened it, she unleashed on humankind all of the evils that have since plagued our world: pain, sickness, toil, death.
There are obvious similarities between Pandora and Eve of the Book of Genesis. Both are the first women; both are given one ‘divine prohibition’, as it is known; both succumb to temptation – and both are then held accountable for a whole world of suffering.
But unlike Eve, there is a final twist to Pandora’s story that leaves a glimmer of light in a darkened world. Pandora resealed her jar just in time to prevent everything inside escaping. So writes Hesiod:
Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house,
she remained under the lip of the jar, and did not
fly away. Before [she could], Pandora replaced the
lid of the jar. This was the will of aegis-bearing
Zeus the Cloudgatherer.
Pandora, then, is not left hopeless. Humanity cannot connect to the hope – it is locked away. But they know at least that it exists, and that, it seems, was the one spark of compassion in Zeus’s plan.
Pandora’s story has been passed down from generation to generation to serve as a warning not to let curiosity lead you astray, and to think carefully of the potential consequences of your actions. Over the years, it has inspired everything from poetry and music to paintings and jewellery.
I will leave you with my favourite Pandora-inspired works, both from the nineteenth century: a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1869), and a painting by John William Waterhouse (1896).
Pandora (For A Picture)
WHAT of the end, Pandora? Was it thine,
The deed that set these fiery pinions free?
Ah! wherefore did the Olympian consistory
In its own likeness make thee half divine?
Was it that Juno’s brow might stand a sign
For ever? and the mien of Pallas be
A deadly thing? and that all men might see
In Venus’ eyes the gaze of Proserpine?
What of the end? These beat their wings at will,
The ill-born things, the good things turned to ill,—
Powers of the impassioned hours prohibited.
Aye, clench the casket now! Whither they go
Thou mayst not dare to think: nor canst thou know
If Hope still pent there be alive or dead.
My new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, is set in the Greek islands, and as the title suggests, I touch on Greek mythology throughout the book.
Do you know your Zeus from your Jupiter, your Athena from your Minerva? There’s a close correlation between Greek and Roman anthology, and quite the cast of characters to remember.
Here’s a quick and simple guide to the main players in Greek mythology – the twelve Olympians, who were the major deities of Mount Olympus – each with a visual depiction in classical sculpture.
Recently, I read with interest a personal essay entitled ‘You can never go back: on loving children’s books as an adult’ published on the LitHub website.
Writer Anya Jaremko-Greenwold laments that adults turn away from children’s literature in favour of reading books deemed good for them, when ‘the books we loved growing up had cosmic power – they chipped away at and gnawed upon and shaped our identities’. But we can’t go back, she argues: children’s stories can never be for us what they once were. Which is why she subtitles her essay: ‘Why visiting old fictional friends is so bittersweet’.
I identified with this essay, because I was such a keen reader as a child. As Sir Frances Bacon phrased it, I ‘devoured’ children’s books. They were a source of great comfort and joy to me – and inspiration. I am not sure I have ever found it bittersweet, though, to revisit those books in adulthood, because I have had no desire to go back: I move forwards, with my own writing, and that writing grows out of everything I have ever read and found inspiring in my life, including the stories of my childhood.
For me, the stories that most resonated were those rooted in legend: the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; the One Thousand and One Nights; the mythology of ancient civilisations: the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks.
The latter was a key inspiration for my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. It was a children’s book that first introduced me to Greek mythology. I remember it as well-thumbed, with a cracking spine, and falling open on certain stories I loved: Persephone and Hades, King Midas and the golden touch, Theseus and the Minotaur – although the Minotaur illustration would frighten me. My governess read this book over and over to me, as did my parents, and I lived the stories in my imagination.
The stories of Greek mythology stayed with me over the years, and when I had my own children, I was able to rediscover them all over again – and then, more recently, once more with my grandchildren. So it is that childhood stories can be treasured and revisited – and, importantly for my own writing, dwell in an imagination for so long that even years later they can spark creative ideas.
Aphrodite’s Tears is an adult novel, a romance – not fantasy, but true to life. However, it is interwoven with Greek mythology, and when I wrote the book I found my mind returning often to that old, worn compendium of my childhood. There is such warmth in my memories of reading that book, such magic and thrall, and Aphrodite’s Tears became imbued with those feelings.
Emilie Buchwald said, ‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.’ Writers are made this way too, and I am so very glad for all the books I read, and was read, in my formative years.
If you are interested in Greek mythology, I highly recommend Robert Sabuda’s pop-up Encyclopedia Mythologica. The artwork is beautiful and brings to life the stories:
It’s ideal for reading aloud to children, because it’s a book both adult and child can enjoy. In fact, you may find you love it so much, it’s a book you want on your own shelf. Because, in fact, while you can’t go back to childhood, you can always remain young at heart and appreciate the stories that shape imaginations.
I have returned from France to my home in Ireland, and the views of rich-green lawns and spun-gold leaves and skeletal branches reaching up to dreamy clouds are beautiful. And yet, I must confess, I miss the sunshine.
‘Keep your face to the sun and you will never see the shadows,’ wrote author and activist Helen Keller, and this is a philosophy I live by, both metaphorically and, where possible, practically.
Spending summers at my French home affords me the opportunity to drink in the sunshine, and I do so eagerly each day, laying down reserves for the long winter months. The sun inspires and soothes; it lifts the mood; it energises and heals. ‘Ópou o í̱lios baínei o giatrós den títhetai,’ I write in my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, quoting a Greek proverb: ‘Where the sun enters, the physician does not.’
Aphrodite’s Tears, my upcoming novel, will transport readers to the beautiful island of Helios in the Ionian Sea. Perhaps ‘Helios’ sounds familiar to you, if you know something of Greek mythology. I could not resist naming my fictional Greek island where the sun shines so brightly after the Greek god of the sun. According to legend, each day Helios rides his chariot of the sun across the sky, drawn by his fiery steeds, Pyrois, Aeos, Aethon, and Phlegon.
I also touch upon sun mythology in my debut novel, Burning Embers. An old Kenyan lady tells this legend:
At the beginning of all things, the sun married the moon. They traveled together for a long time, and the sun would go in front with the moon following behind. As they traveled, the moon would sometimes get tired, so the sun would carry her. One day the moon forgot to stay behind the sun and passed in front of him. The sun became angry, so the moon was beaten by the sun in just the same way women are beaten by their husbands when they forget their place.
But the sun did not realize that he had married one of those women who fight their husbands. When the moon was beaten, she fought back, and wounded the sun on his forehead. The sun also fought, and scratched the moon’s face and plucked out one of her eyes. When the sun saw that he was scarred, he was very embarrassed and said to himself, ‘I am going to shine so brightly that people will not be able to look at me and see my scars.’ And so he shone so hard that people could not look at him without squinting. That is why the sun shines so brightly. As for the moon, she felt no embarrassment, and so she did not have to shine any brighter. And even now, if you look closely at the moon, you will see the marks on her face that the sun gave her during their fight.
The sun is a reoccurring theme in all of my novels. Beautiful settings lit by the sun inspire my characters and draw them outside, where they connect with the place and its culture and people. Take this extract, from The Echoes of Love:
Finally she slipped out of bed and ran to the window that overlooked the lagoon. As her apartment was on the third floor, the stretch of shoreline was visible for miles. The waters were very blue under the cloudless sky, sparkling in the sunshine; everything was clear in the crystal air, but it was still very cold. A heavenly morning, too beautiful to stay indoors!
The sun paints the canals of Venice a stunning blue and lights the water with sparkles, enticing Alexandra to go outside and explore.
Of course, sunshine is also conducive to romance and sensuality. The quality of the light and the warmth it creates can cause a heroine to mellow and relax, to let down her guard and carefully constructed boundaries. The sunshine can be heady, intoxicating even. Enticing. Sultry. Sensual.
In Masquerade, the heroine Luz sails to a little private cove, and after tiring herself out through swimming and snorkelling, she falls asleep while sunbathing on the beach. I write:
The sun was still blazing when she woke up, hot and clammy. Her bikini was sticking to her like a second skin and her hair was damp, unpleasant against her nape. She padded across the sun-warmed sand and stood digging her toes deep in the fine ivory-coloured strip, feasting her eyes on the crystal-clear waters lapping at her feet. Golden sunbeams danced on the glasslike surface; it was seductively inviting.
‘Seductively’: that is the effect the sun is having on Luz. When, minutes later, Leandro appears on the cliff and dives into the water to join her, she is swept away:
She clung to him; all thought and reason and past resolve evaporating, her skin fluttering beneath his touch, intoxicated by love, by desire and by the sun.
The sun: a powerful force indeed, the very centre of the universe and fundamental to inspiration and growth and happiness. It is no wonder we miss it so in winter. But I do not dwell on the months ahead when I will not be able to sit in the garden and feel the sunrays warming my face, for I have the means to escape to the sun every day: my fiction.
I do hope you’ll join me in Helios, Greece, when my new novel is released in January. I can guarantee you plenty of hours of brilliant, dazzling sunshine to chase away the winter shadows in Aphrodite’s Tears.
Often, my fiction is inspired by experiences in my own life, but occasionally the reverse can be true: my fiction can inspire me to try something new. That has been the case in the past few weeks, and it has been a rewarding experience indeed.
My upcoming novel Aphrodite’s Tears is set on the Greek island of Helios in the Ionian Sea, which is privately owned by the Theodorakis family. The head of the family, Damian, is responsible for all the people who live on the island, and a major source of income for them all is the Theodorakis Press, which takes the olives that are grown on the island and turns them into olive oil that is sold to mainland Greece and Italy.
A chapter of the book is devoted to Damian taking the heroine, Oriel, to his olive press and educating her on the business. Here is a peek of the setting, Damien’s ‘olive heaven’, through Oriel’s eyes:
They had driven up to a building that looked like an old Roman monastery, its domed tower presiding over thick stone walls of pale pinkish ochre, and its different sections covered with tiled, pitched roofs. It was a strange and beautiful place. Surrounding the building, row after row of noble olive trees surged up from a parched, rocky, calcareous soil, gnarled in the calm stillness, their silvery-green leaves shimmering against the bright Greek sky in the sun-drenched afternoon.
As they tour the press, Damien explains the process to Oriel.
First, he shows her the traditional stone mill – the likes of which have been in operation for thousands of years. The olives are placed on a conveyer belt, which runs them through a stream of water to clean them, before tipping them into the grinding mill. There, great millstones laboriously rotate, grinding the whole olives into a brown, gluey pulp. Eventually, bright beads of extra virgin oil began to appear along the edges of the pulp, and as the pressure is increased, they become a golden stream of oil that glitters like liquid gold.
Then Damien shows Oriel a more modern way of making olive oil, which the Italians call affioramento (afloat). The pulp is mixed with water and put into large containers and then left, until the oil naturally separates, floating to the top. This process takes a lot longer, but yields a more delicate – and therefore valuable – oil.
Why use two different olive-oil production methods on the island? Because Damian is a man with one foot in the past, in tradition, and one in the future, in progress. The traditional olive press has been in his family for generations, and he and the islanders see it as a precious and artisan craft. But with the responsibility for his people sitting weightily on his shoulders, Damian must also make sure that this little isolated island is connected to the modern world and able to be self-sufficient, and thus he also employs the modern method in order to create products that yield a good profit.
I found it fascinating to research for this novel how olives are harvested and processed for oil, not least because in the garden of my French home I have an olive grove of my own. After writing Aphrodite’s Tears, the idea struck me: why not try to harvest my olives? Here is the culmination of that idea…
I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to harvest my own olives! I had a rather romanticised notion of picking the olives from the branches by hand, but soon realised that was not feasible, and so I had a little help from a gardener, who used a vibrating tool to shake the olives off the branches and onto nets spread under the trees (see the video).
Altogether, more than 200 kilos of olives were collected, and I had these sent to an olive press, which means I will have my very own olive oil for Christmastime. I hope it will be as delicious as that made by the Theodorakis Press which sparked the idea. I expect it will, for I feel sure that Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, was smiling on me as I gathered my olives.