For my latest novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, I took inspiration from the classic stories of Greek mythology. I grew up with these stories, told to me by my governess and my parents, and one of my oldest and most treasured possessions is a children’s compendium of myths based on the epic poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. As I grew older, I explored other sources for the myths too, and discovered the works of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, the three great Athenian tragic poets.
Have you heard of the Theban plays? They are three plays – Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone – by Sophocles that relate what happened to the family of Oedipus. King of Thebes, Oedipus unwittingly killed a man he did not know was his father and married a woman he did not know was his mother, the fulfilment of a prophecy that brought ill fate to his family and his city.
My favourite of the three plays, and a rich source of inspiration for Aphrodite’s Tears, is Antigone.
Antigone is both the daughter and sister of Oedipus (How is that possible? Because, if you remember, he married his own mother, Jocasta). When her brother Polynices is killed in battle having mounted an attack on the city of Thebes, the king orders that the traitor Polynices is not to be buried, or even grieved for. Any who attempts to bury Polynices, he decrees, will be put to death.
But Antigone cannot abide by this cruel order. She is caught burying the body, and brought before King Creon. She tells him she need not abide by his laws, but by divine law. Creon is unimpressed, and he imprisons her in a cave.
Given that the play is a tragedy, you can imagine that Antigone does not emerge from the cave to walk off into the sunset with her beloved, Haemon, Creon’s son. When Haemon comes to the cave, he finds Antigone dead, having hanged herself, and in response he takes his own life – and in response to that, Haemon’s mother (Creon’s wife) takes her own life.
I love Antigone’s strength and valour in this play; her love for her brother and her determination to do what is right. Yet her belief in the gods, in following their law, does not protect her from a tragic end.
In Aphrodite’s Tears, the heroine Oriel meets a wise woman known as the Oracle, and Delia tells Oriel:
‘Your fortune is changing, mermaid of the North Sea… though your beauty can be compared to that of Calypso, the fair nymph of Ogygia, or Selene, goddess of the moon, your fate could be that of the dark and passionate Antigone if the gods are not on your side. They are silent today but remember, it will not always be summer. Gather the harvest while you can.’
This is a perturbing encounter for Oriel, who is well-versed in mythology. Later, she considers what Delia’s words may mean:
What had Delia meant with her reference to Antigone? Sophocles’s play had seen Antigone yield to the fate of the gods, not the laws of man. Although decisive and courageous, she had still come to a tragic end. So what did it mean? It made no sense at all to her. Or was it about Antigone herself? Some scholars believed her name meant ‘opposed to motherhood’ or ‘against men’. But Oriel had no antagonistic ideas towards either. On the contrary, she had always thought she would marry and have children, she just hadn’t met the right man … until now.
Will Oriel’s passion and determination lead her, like Antigone, to tragedy? Will fate determine a different ending for Oriel? Ultimately, will the gods – will Aphrodite – smile on this spirited heroine?