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.
“There is the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible – magic to make the sanest man go mad.”
So reads the epigraph of my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. As the book title suggests, mythology is a key inspiration; hence I chose this quotation from The Iliad by Homer. This epic poem, along with its sequel, The Odyssey, is one of the key literary sources for Greek mythology. Know Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and you know the foundation for many of the classic stories of Greek mythology that are told still to this day.
First, who was this Homer? This is not as simple a question to answer as you may expect. In fact, it’s a scholarly question much debated through the ages, known as the Homeric Question. Given that The Iliad and The Odyssey were written in the late 8th or early 7th century BC, it’s understandable that who exactly Homer was isn’t crystal clear. Some believe the poems grew out of an oral tradition; some believe they were authored by multiple people; some believe they were indeed written by one man, Homer. Ancient biographies of this man paint an interesting picture: he was blind, he was the son of a nymph, he was a wondering bard and he died by drowning in mud when he was unable to solve a riddle posed to him by some fishermen…
Scholars may not agree on the origin of the works, but they do agree that The Iliad and The Odyssey have been vastly influential. In fact, these two epic poems are the earliest works of Greek literature and thus the cornerstones of all that followed. As the philosopher Plato put it, it was Homer who ‘taught Greece’. The Homeric epics have played an important role in shaping Western civilisation, and their influence can be found to this day in everything from literature and art to music, movies and plays.
Central to Homer’s works is the idea of heroism. The Iliad tells the story of the ten-day siege of Troy during the Trojan War waged between the Greeks and the Trojans. The main character is the hero Achilles, son of a mortal man and a sea nymph, and a mighty warrior (although he has one weak point, his heel, by which his mother held him in infancy as she plunged him into the River Styx in an attempt to make him immortal).
Also prominent in The Iliad are Helen and Paris. When Paris, prince of Troy, judges the goddess Aphrodite to be the most beautiful, she rewards him with Helen, wife of the king of Sparta and the most beautiful mortal woman in the world. Troy goes ahead and claims his prize by abducting Helen, thereby inciting the Trojan War.
Along with Aphrodite, plenty of other Greek gods and goddesses feature in The Iliad. Athena, for example, supports Achilles and Odysseus, the king of Ithica who joins the Greek forces. Odysseus becomes the central figure in the next poem, The Odyssey.
The Odyssey picks up the story after The Iliad, following Odysseus on his voyage home after the fall of Troy to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. It’s a very perilous sea journey spanning a good ten years, and along the way Odysseus encounters all kinds of challenges: Calypso the nymph, who imprisons him on her island; the Cyclops, who eats some of his men; Circe the witch, who turns some of his crew to pigs; the sea monster Scylla, who has six heads; the Sirens, who would sing the sailors to their doom; not to mention Poseidon, god of the sea, who is determined to thwart Odysseus with storm after storm after the hero blinds the Cyclops (who happened to be Poseidon’s son).
Meanwhile, back home Penelope has problems of her own. With Odysseus gone for so many years, more than one hundred suitors are clamouring to take his place as Penelope’s husband and the ruler of Ithica. She tells them she cannot remarry until she has finished making a shroud for Odysseus’ father… and then each night she carefully unravels the day’s weaving, to slow the passage of time.
As you can see, these are action-packed, colourful and emotional stories. It is no wonder they have stood the test of time and inspired so many people over the years, myself included.
On my bookshelf, I have the Penguin editions of The Odyssey and The Iliad, translated from the Ancient Greek. I love to dip into these, but they are quite challenging reads if you intend to read cover to cover. If you’d like to read the stories of The Odyssey and The Iliad, I recommend Gillian Cross’s retelling with wonderful illustrations by Neil Packer.
These books may be shelved in the children’s section of a bookstore, but they are not only for children. As Charles Dickens put it, “it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected…” – and legends too, I would add.
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 was reflecting on a trip I took to the Greek island of Santorini, whose culture, history and mythology helped to inspire my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, which will be published in January.
Santorini is a volcanic island, and thousands of years ago it was the site of the Minoan eruption, which was incredibly destructive, wiping out settlements on the island and on neighbouring islands. One such settlement on Santorini was Akrotiri, which was buried in volcanic ash. Some historians believe that this eruption and the decimation of Akrotiri were the inspirations for a very famous story by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato: that of an island that sinks into the sea and is lost. Its name, of course, is Atlantis.
The lost island – often known as the city of Atlantis – is a mysterious and compelling idea that has captured imaginations for many hundreds of years. Some ancient writers believed that Plato’s story was fact, not fiction; but these days there are few who see the tale as anything more than an allegory meant to serve as a lesson.
Still, Atlantis is not the only island/city believed to be lost. Are other stories to be believed?
Take, for example, the ghost island of San Borondon, the eighth of the Canary Islands. It is so called for Saint Brendan of Clonfert (484–577), an Irish monk who first set foot on the island. But then the ‘whale island’ began moving, and so the monk jumped into a boat and watched, astonished, as the island disappeared into the blue. Are you dubious? Of course, this is a legend, beloved by the Irish and the local Canarians alike. But one has to wonder: many sailors reported seeing the island through winds, rains and mists but found it had vanished as they approached, and in the 18th century an official investigation was made when 100 islanders on El Hierro claimed to have seen San Borondon.
San Borondon is just one of a list of more than 50 ‘phantom islands’ that have been logged, usually by sailors, over the years. All kinds of explanations have been given for these islands that have been sighted but cannot be located, from their having sunk into the sea following volcanic activity (in the style of Atlantis) to their having been misidentified icebergs. The Fata Morgana is my favourite explanation. It’s a kind of fast-changing mirage that you can see on the horizon (so named for Morgan le Fay, the enchantress of the legends of King Arthur, because sailors would say she conjured up mirages of land to lure them into dangerous waters).
What of the lost cities? Surely a city is harder to lose than a glimpse of an island through sea mists? If Atlantis had been in the middle of the Greek mainland, it would be far easier to rediscover – would it not?
Some cities termed ‘lost’ are not really lost; they simply exist now in known locations as ghost towns. But other cites truly did get lost, abandoned due to war or disease or natural disaster and their location not recorded on any map.
Take, for example, the Lost City of the Incas. Machu Picchu was built at the top of a mountain ridge in Peru in the 15th century and was abandoned (most likely due to a smallpox epidemic, it is thought). By the turn of the 20th century, only the native people who lived in the immediate area knew of its existence. So easily, it could have been dismissed as the stuff of legends. Yet today, the ruins of the rediscovered city attract visitors from all over the world.
An even more interesting example is that of Helike. This city in Greece disappeared in 373 BC, consumed by the sea. A story? Certainly, Helike inspired a tale told through the centuries that was rich in mythology: so the the story went, the sea god Poseidon had wiped out the city in vengeance, for the people of the city had enraged him. Until recently, many people assumed Helike was nothing more than legend. But the city did exist!
In 1988, the Helike Project was launched, headed by a Greek archaeologist, Dora Katsonopoulou, and a scientist, Steven Soter, of the American Museum of Natural History. It took many years, but eventually, in 2001, the lost city was discovered beneath an ancient lagoon. To this day, excavations are still underway to find as much as possible of Helike – and all thanks to the dedication of the archaeologists.
In my new book, Aphrodite’s Tears, the heroine Oriel is an archaeologist, passionate about uncovering artefacts and architecture of the past and preserving it for future generations. She is everything an archaeologist must be: tenacious, knowledgeable, careful, curious – but most of all, willing to believe.
It is so easy – too easy – to dismiss fantastic stories as fantasy. But sometimes long-forgotten truths are unearthed, and when they are, it is a lesson to us all: that we must be open-minded and enquiring; that we must respect stories handed down over generations; and that if we wish to make fantastic discoveries, we must dare to have faith in their existence.
Passionate, dramatic, epic: the love story of Anthony and Cleopatra is arguably the most famous and enduring of all time. What sets this story apart from those of other great lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, is that at its heart lies truth: Anthony and Cleopatra did exist, and they did love each other with a burning, consuming passion. Yet their truth has morphed into legend, as so many imaginations through the centuries have been captured by their story and inspired to weave fiction from fact.
So what are the facts, as a starting point?
Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was the last ruler of Egypt, before the country was incorporated into the Roman Empire. She was proud of her Egyptian heritage, seeing herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess. Yet she was not Egyptian through and through: she was of a Greek family who had ruled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great.
Cleopatra was helped to become sole ruler of Egypt by the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, whose mistress she become, bearing his son, Ptolemy Caesar, nine months after their first secret meeting. When Caesar was assassinated, she turned her attention to his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (83–30 BC), who along with two other men had assumed the dictatorship in Rome. Their political aspirations were well-matched, and with Mark Anthony placed in charge of Egypt, he co-ruled with Cleopatra in the pursuit of great power and glory.
Anthony was married four times, latterly to Octavia, the sister of the future Roman Emperor Augustus. Marriage then for leaders was about political alliance, not love; but it was love that brought Anthony to Cleopatra’s side time and again, and she bore him three children. Soon, Anthony and Augustus could no longer see eye to eye, and civil war erupted, which culminated in Augustus declaring war on Cleopatra and declaring Anthony to be a traitor. At the Battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea, Augustus defeated Anthony’s forces, and he fled to Egypt and Cleopatra.
Ruthless ambition and pride had united Anthony and Cleopatra thus far, but now came the moment in history that made this love affair so memorable: the two committed suicide. First Anthony, knowing that he could not escape Augustus’s reach and believing that Cleopatra had already taken her life, stabbed himself in the stomach. As he lay awaiting death, however, he learned that his love was alive, and he was brought to her – to die in her arms. After the burial rites, Cleopatra then chose to join him in death, through the poison of an asp which she provoked into biting her. They are believed to lie together still in a mausoleum near the temple of Taposiris Magna, southwest of Alexandria.
Quite a story, don’t you think? No wonder it has inspired so many creative minds over the years, some sticking to the facts as recorded at the time, but most taking poetic licence to represent the compelling and epic love of these formidable figureheads. Here are just two of the many depictions of Anthony and Cleopatra that have brought so much colour and emotion to our cultural landscapes.
William Shakespeare wrote a tragedy based on the famous lovers, called Antony and Cleopatra and set in Rome and Egypt. It was first performed at the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century. The relationship between the two protagonists underlies all the action, and is based on an angst-ridden combination of passion and manipulation. Power and fame are of absolute importance – and invincibility, which is why, to Shakespeare’s mind, Antony and Cleopatra take their own lives, ensuring that their love will become legendary and that they will be remembered as heroic, noble and sacrificing. Not, in fact, a tragic ending, but one infused with a mastery of one’s fate. So says Cleopatra upon Anthony’s death:
We’ll bury him, and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,
Let’s do ’t after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.
The film Cleopatra, released in 1963, has gone down in history as being absolutely epic, the most expensive and ambitious movie created to that point (it cost 44 million dollars to make, and despite being the highest-grossing film at the box office that year, it did not make a profit and plunged 20th Century-Fox into a financial quagmire). It’s a sumptuous, grand, dramatic biography of Cleopatra’s life, and most especially her love affairs with Caesar and Anthony.
It is the relationship with Anthony that really stands out, however, for the chemistry between the actors is so fiery. Here’s a snippet of one of their scenes:
Cleopatra: You come before me as a suppliant.
Antony: If you choose to regard me as such.
Cleopatra: I do. You will therefore assume the position of a suppliant before this throne. You will kneel.
Antony: I will what?
Cleopatra: On your knees!
Antony: You dare ask the Proconsul of the Roman Empire?
Cleopatra: I asked it of Julius Caesar. I demand it of you!
The spark so evident on screen was compelling because it was burning brightly off screen too. While filming Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton engaged in an adulterous affair that created an almighty scandal; as Vanity Fair put it, “Never before had celebrity scandal pushed so far into global consciousness”. One wonders what the real Cleopatra would have made of that. I imagine, somehow, she would have been undaunted, her head held high.
What do you make of Anthony and Cleopatra’s love story? Is it a story of love, in fact, to inspire us, or one of power plays and possession and lust? I would love to hear your thoughts.