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.
‘Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.
Layla, I’m begging, darling, please.
Layla, darling, won’t you ease my worried mind.’
So sang Eric Clapton. ‘Layla’ is widely heralded as one of the greatest rock love songs of all time, but do you know the story behind the music?
The inspiration for ‘Layla’ is a very old tale, that of unrequited love in 7th-century Persian. It is a story that has been inspiring creatives for centuries, having been popularised by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Here are just some of the artworks it has inspired:
The story of Layla and Majnun is, as English poet Lord Byron put it, ‘the Romeo and Juliet of the East’. Various versions exist, but at the core of each is a love that cannot be.
A young man named Qais ibn Al-Mulawah (known as Qays) fell in love with a young lady named Layla: deeply, irrevocably, hopelessly in love. He put his all into wooing Layla, and she reciprocated, falling in love with him. But he became so obsessed by Layla that locals dubbed him Majnun, meaning madman. Consequently, when Majnun finally plucked up the courage to ask Layla’s father for her hand in marriage, he refused, on the grounds that Majnun was a crazy, and thus unsuitable, suitor. Against her wishes, Layla was married off to a wealthy merchant, and a heartbroken Majnun fled the village, to wander the wilderness, murmuring love poems to an audience of wild creatures.
Like Romeo and Juliet, the ending is a sad one. Layla died first, of a broken heart, and Majnun then died of grief at her tomb, after inscribing into a rock:
I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla And I kiss this wall and that wall It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart But of the One who dwells within them.
Another version of the story has the star-crossed lovers meeting at school. Majnun would be beaten for paying attention to Layla rather than his studies, but for each stroke it was Layla, somehow, who would bleed. When their families discovered the powerful and mystical link between the two, a feud sprang up. As the two reached adulthood, their union was forbidden. Majnun ended up fighting Layla’s controlling brother and killing him (shades of Tybalt). To save Majnun from being stoned to death for this crime, Layla agreed to marry another man, while Majnun was exiled. But as time wore on, Layla pined for Majnun, and her new husband was jealous. He decided to remove the threat, and he rode into the wilderness, found Majnun and stabbed him in the chest. At the moment of Majnun’s death, Layla’s heart stopped beating too.
To this day, each June newlyweds and those who are betrothed come to the village of Binjaur in the state of Rajasthan, India, to pay homage at what legend tells is the tomb of Layla and Majnun, a symbolic place representing love and union – for the two are remembered together eternally in the afterlife, where madness and feuding cannot touch them.
Persephone has returned from the underworld, heralding the return of spring: daffodils and snowdrops, blue skies and warming sunshine, longer days and milder nights – spring has sprung!
There is such a feeling of hope in the air, of the promise of rebirth and growth and discovery. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘A light exists in spring.’
A light exists in spring… this line has often been on my mind, for the heroine of my latest novel, Legacy, is named Luz (Spanish for light) and her story begins in the spring.
The preceding novels in the Andalusian Nights series are set in the summer: hot and sultry. But for Legacy I wanted to lead in to that Spanish heat. Spring was the perfect season for the opening of the book because of its symbolism. Luz is embarking on a new journey of discovery, learning about the beautiful country and its passionate people, and along the way she herself blossoms into a sensual woman.
Blossom: there is another inspiration for the book. Are you familiar with Vincent Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms paintings? Here is Almond Blossom, 1890.
When he arrived in Arles in March 1888, Van Gogh was so inspired by the fruit trees in the orchards that he painted them every single day for a fortnight and felt somewhat bereft when they were finished flowering. Two years later he painted this artwork, Almond Blossom, as a celebration of new life: it was for his new baby nephew.
I love the serenity of this artwork, the dreamy hue of the sky, the fact the onlooker is placed in the position of gazing heavenward, as if lying in soft grass under the tree, daydreaming. Most of all I love the blossom: fresh, virginal – and delicate.
There is something so delicate about blossom, and precious too, due to its ephemeral nature. Rather like first love, don’t you think? In Legacy, ‘blossom’ is a word I associate with Luz’s developing sensuality; her need for Ruy is blossoming. But that need is delicate and fragile, and it must be carefully nurtured if it is not to be fleeting like the blossom on the trees in spring – or indeed like spring itself, which passes, as Emily Dickinson writes, and leaves us with ‘a quality of loss’.
In a place as beautiful as Cadiz, Andalusia, however, there need be no loss when the spring has passed. There, in the ‘city of light’, the summer is long and heady – all the light that exists in spring can exist in summer too for Luz… if she only opens her heart to it.
Would you like to read Legacy? I have a limited number of books available for reviewers, so do let me know if you’d like to read the book in exchange for posting an honest review on Amazon.
My home in the South of France – a French mas (Provençal farmhouse) in Ste Maxime – affords beautiful views over the Mediterranean. I often write in the garden, in the shade on the terrace, or in my writing room if the heat is too much; and as I write I glance up now and again to drink in the colours of the view, especially the azure ocean. Sometimes, though, a glance is not enough: the view commands my attention!
This is especially the case at the end of the summer each year, when a regatta, Les Voiles de St Tropez, takes place in the gulf of St Tropez. This is what I see from my house:
I love to watch the sailboats racing through the waters; they call to mine this verse from Lord Byron’s The Corsair:
O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
Freedom, exhilaration, abandon, joy – these are sensations that I associate with sailing, and they were inspirations for my Andalucían Nights series.
The second book, Masquerade, and the final book, Legacy, are set in the city of Cadiz, Spain, which is known as ‘the Bride of the Sea’ because it is almost entirely surrounded by the ocean. In Masquerade, my heroine Luz is spirited and liberated. She feels an affinity with the sea, and is confident in taking to the water herself:
On one of her outings of exploration, as she climbed through the opaque forest of thick vegetation that wound up and down the coast, she had burst into a clearing. From there, as if out of nowhere, she had come upon an expanse of shimmering blue ocean enclosed within a small cove. It lay at the bottom of the escarpment, surrounded by little creeks and rocky caves, with lonely golden beaches sandwiched between haciendas. Since it was impossible to reach by foot, the next day she hired a small boat and, using her sense of direction, found one of the approaches to this magical place through the rocks. It looked lonely, with only a few seagulls strutting about on the wet sand at the water’s edge. And there, in complete seclusion, she bathed until sunset. After that, she came every day.
Later in the book, the hero Andrés takes her sailing and… well, I wouldn’t want to give away the plot. Suffice it to say that I explore the dramatic, as well as the serene, side of sailing.
Legacy, the final book in the series, resonates with echoes of the past, one of which is a return to the water. Ruy takes Luna sailing on the Vela Gitana (Sailing Gypsy), a 1953 yacht. It may be old, but it is also handsome and romantic –‘What a dream,’ Luna says as she climbs aboard.
I could not resist working in at this point Les Voiles de St-Tropez. Ruy explains:
‘Last year she entered the regatta of Les Voiles de St-Tropez, which used to be known as La Nioulargue, and she more than held her own among all the modern yachts, as well as some really beautiful traditional ones.’
There is something sublimely romantic about sailing; but beyond romance, a sensuality can spring up. In both Masquerade and Legacy sailing stirs emotion in the characters; their proximity to nature, to the wild and tempestuous sea, fires up their chemistry.
I will leave you with a poem by one of my favourite writers from English literature, William Wordsworth, which perfectly encapsulates the fusion of sailing and sensuality.
With ships the sea was sprinkled
With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh,
Like stars in heaven, and joyously it showed;
Some lying fast at anchor in the road,
Some veering up and down, one knew not why.
A goodly vessel did I then espy
Come like a giant from a haven broad;
And lustily along the bay she strode,
Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.
The ship was nought to me, nor I to her,
Yet I pursued her with a lover’s look;
This ship to all the rest did I prefer:
When will she turn, and whither? She will brook
No tarrying; where she comes the winds must stir:
On went she, and due north her journey took.