Sunday, 23 December 2012

Winter fertility festival in ancient Athens

December has been very full! 
I am working on the second draft of a commissioned story while trying to prepare for Christmas. On the very day of the solstice there was a death in the close family and another family member is recovering from major surgery. Thus the blog has been 16 days without attention. 

But in quiet moments, I have been wondering what the Ancient Greeks did to celebrate the winter solstice (Dec 21st) and done a little research. (The Boy with Two Heads is set during spring and summer, so I had not focused on this time of year in ancient Greece before.) The upshot is that calenders and festivals varied considerably from city to city, so it is all rather vague. The vagueness may also be due to the fact that it seems fertility rites were the order of the day. Scholars and archaeologists have often hidden or ignored references to such things. There were (and perhaps still are) special rooms in museums and libraries where only certain people could view them or read about them...

Looking south-west from Mount Pendelli over modern Athens in winter.
In Attica (the area round Athens), the agricultural year was half way through in December. Crops of wheat, barley and other cereals were sown (they would be harvested in May or June), and vines hoed and root-pruned. The tasting of the new vintage (pressed in September) is also mentioned. Add to these, festivals involving women's fertility and sexuality and you get what sounds like a riotous celebration!

One such was called the Haloa (page 32). It took place in the month named after Poseidon, equivalent to our December/January. This is the season in Greece when everything is green and the soil is damp, soft and relatively warm from the winter rain (although there can be snow on the mountains!) The celebrations seem to have involved cakes and bread rolls in the shapes of male and female genitalia, jokes and stories from the women's point of view about the 'war of the sexes', and perhaps sacrifices to the mother goddess of agriculture and fertility, Demeter. 

So more like the Medieval Lord of Misrule (but with more emphasis on reproduction!) than modern Christmas in this country, 

Keswick Moot Hall, December 2012
Which brings me to wishing all my readers

Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year!

And I wish you a 2013 full of positive events and energy.

[With my story deadline looming, I will probably not manage another posting for a couple of weeks, so back in January!]

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Ancient Greek six-packs

I am learning a whole new series of skills as Connie and I take The Boy with Two Heads to schools and libraries as part of our constant market research and promotional activities. And I thought writing just involved writing!

artist's impression by Sian Frances
But we have been enjoying meeting my readers, and this week we met some Year 6 students at Egremont Library who impressed us a lot. Their teacher had already taken them through the first four chapters of the book, so we read a passage to them from further on which features Phidias' gold and ivory statue of Zeus. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the statue survived 800 years but was taken to Constantinople and destroyed in a great fire there. 

The students had also prepared some questions to ask me. I tried to answer these truthfully, but questions like 'where do you get your inspiration?' always stump me. I've thought about this since, and just want to say that I write because I enjoy it. I like going where it takes me in my head, getting to know my characters, and finding out what happens to them. It's a bit like reading, except that it takes longer, and I control the final outcome. 

One unusual question we got this time was, 'Why did all the men have six-packs?' (This after looking at pictures of vase paintings and statues of naked men, as you do if you are discussing Ancient Greek athletes.) My answer was that the man's body was their best weapon in war, and they were always at war. They went into the army at 18 and were always eligible to be called up if necessary, which was just about every summer! So they spent a lot of time keeping fit. 
the Dioscouros
Roman copy of a Greek original

For many of them the Marathon would have been a short run. Professional messengers were expected to run at least 100 kilometres in 24 hours. There's a modern race called the Spartathlon which covers 246 kilometres (153 miles) in less than 36 hours, as reportedly run by Pheidippides in 490 BC. I refer to it in my posting on March 8th.

And as Connie noted, another factor was their diet - lots of unprocessed cereals, fruit, vegetables, cheese and olives, with the occasional fish, duck or hare, and beef only on feast days. 

the quintessential six-pack:
Apollo from the Temple of Zeus 
at Ancient Olympia
modern statue of
King Leonidas of Sparta
However, it is probably true that the statues were idealised. So maybe not all Ancient Greek men had six-packs. They must have been pretty common, though, because the body-armour seems to have allowed for them, as you can see on this modern statue in Sparta.

Lastly, I would like to correct something else that came up. Connie mentioned that the word for a publisher's logo is colophon (her company's colophon is a trefoil, or clover leaf). My suggestion was that colophon derives from the Greek words kollos for bottom (which is in fact modern slang), and phoni, meaning voice (as in telephone). This led to a certain amount of hilarity ... and is of course nonsense! 
According to Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon and Wikipedia, kolophon is an Ancient Greek word (though still in use) which means ‘the summit, peak, or finishing touch’. Comparatively boring, but true, nonetheless. My apologies to anyone I may have misled.

And my thanks to our audience at Egremont. You had done a lot of preparation for our meeting, and that made it extra special.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Boy with Two Heads - cover story

Connie and I set off in freezing temperatures last week to present The Boy with Two Heads at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith, Cumbria. It was cold, but not as cold as in December 2010, when I took this picture nearby.

(On that visit I was still researching my story, and staff and students in the PE department gave me time, thought and encouragement. This time I didn't meet any of them, but I am still very grateful to them. However, I did get a chance to thank one other pupil of the school who read part of the manuscript in 2010, and who, together with her sister, helped me with advice on contemporary language and teenage nightlife in Penrith.)

If you've read the beginning of this blog (see December 1st 2011, Two Heads ... why?), you'll know how hard we found it to choose a title and create the cover for this complex and intriguing story. Obviously, both are very important to attract attention in the market and to give a flavour of the book.

The students we met in Penrith last week were in Year 9. We asked them to look at the cover in detail. They found more than 14 elements that had needed our special attention. (We had only remembered 12!) They noticed that the photo on the front has to do with the past, while the photo on the back is of the present. They were intrigued by the Boy's other head being of a girl. They asked about how the Olympic Games came into it (but we didn't tell them, as that would have spoiled the story), and noticed among other things that the police accident board is dated 432 BC. 

They also disagreed with feedback we have had, that the cover is too complicated or too busy for a Young Adult book. They liked that it introduced and echoed the story, rather than was just an enigmatic image on a black background, like so many 'teen' books. 

Thank you all, and your teacher, for an enlightening afternoon (for us, and I hope for you too). 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Seven stories of stories

As a sucker for (most) children's literature, I was thrilled to learn lately about Seven Stories in Newcastle upon Tyne. (If you are similarly inclined, you'll need to set aside a few minutes to enjoy this rich and satisfying website.) 

About a month ago I had the chance to spend a very special day there.

With innumerable and sometimes unsteady sources of funding, and immeasurable effort by a dedicated team, a seven-storey Victorian mill by the Ouseburn River has become the National Centre for Children's Books. It is magical, and I want to live there ...

The bookshop alone is a wonderful, colourful, cave of treasures where you can lose yourself for hours. 

And in the Artist's Attic you can listen and take part in the telling of a story...

On the other five floors are spaces to create stuff, to write and draw stuff, to listen to stuff, to dress up in stuff, to eat stuff and to see stuff done by authors and illustrators as they put together their story books.

The day I was there, there was one exhibition to do with Cressida Cowell's Dragon series. They had murals about Vikings and dragons, staff dressed in relevant costumes, dragons to make or buy, and a Viking ship to try out.

Another exhibition displayed many of Julia Donaldson's heroes, including the Gruffalo and The Troll with glorious murals, interactive listening and drawing stations, and notebooks and drafts of the stories and the illustrations in the making.

There were lots of visitors who were a bit younger than me (!), but it seemed that I was not the only one who was sad that I had to leave when I did ...

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Ancient Greece: modern school syllabi

Last week, Connie (my publisher) and I presented The Boy with Two Heads to two school groups. We enjoyed our time with them, and came away with some useful feedback. Part of which was that, in some schools this autumn (2012), Year 6 is covering aspects of Ancient Greece.

So this is a message to teachers of Year 6 History in England - and others in Classics departments everywhere: 

Please take a look at my time-slip novel, The Boy with Two Heads

I think you will find it relevant. 

In my story, a modern girl 'slips' back in time to live the life of a teenage boy in Ancient Athens and Olympia during the Games of 432 BC. It's a bit spooky because he has borrowed her consciousness while she lies in a coma in 2010 ... Later in the story, he is described in an oracular prophesy as having 'two heads', hence the title.

There is a detailed and helpful review of the story by Carla Nayland here.

I wanted my readers to feel as if they had really been to Ancient Greece. I lived in Athens for more than twenty years and so had plenty of opportunity to research and find help so as to get things as correct as possible. People who have read my book say they learned a lot painlessly! (Amazon reviews here.)

As for relevance to the works of Homer that some schools are focusing on this year, much of life in 5th century BC Greece was similar to how it was for Homer's heroes in The Iliad hundreds of years before. The gods still intervened in every facet of human lives; men still trained hard to be soldiers and served in the army; the Olympic and other Games were still held in honour of the gods with events based on that training; war was still the norm rather than the exception. 

And Homer himself is mentioned in my story. He held an important position in the culture of the time. 

For instance, during a sea-voyage, the passengers keep each other entertained by telling stories. Molon, a rather annoying young man, is one of them.
From Everyday Things in Ancient Greece
by M and C H B Quennel
The captain spent the day on the top deck, controlling the rudder. Molon lay near him, reciting Homer out loud. He told with relish of how Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and made them eat acorns and chestnuts. After a while the captain asked Molon to shut up. Molon went down to the lower deck and carried on under his breath.

People who really existed also appear in the story. One is Panainos, an artist who painted huge official murals depicting the history of Athens. Themis (the fictional Boy of the title) is his apprentice and in this extract is depressed. Frog (also fictional) is Themis' body servant.
   ‘You need to get up,' laughed Frog. 'Panainos wants to talk to you about something important. And the food is duck and mushroom stew.’    
  Themis groaned and rolled out of bed.
  He ate in silence while Panainos chatted on about some battle in Homer that he was going to paint when he got back to Athens.
Artist's reconstruction of Ancient Olympia, about 100 BCE.
The Altis is the area with the large temple in the middle.
  ‘You need a walk, my boy,’ said Panainos at last, as he stood up. ‘Come with me.’
  Themis followed meekly, his mind dull and empty.
  They walked towards the entrance to the Altis. It was early evening and there had been rain, so everything sparkled with drops in the slanting rays of the sun. But Themis was watching his feet as he walked on the paving stones. His sandals were getting too small.

I very much enjoyed writing this book, which took more than two years. But I hope it isn't too obvious that I was once a teacher myself! I thank Carla for her unsolicited review and thoughts, and I invite you to comment below ...

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Nakedness (of men) in Ancient Greece

At a reading of The Boy with Two Heads yesterday, in Wigton Library, I showed pictures of vase paintings of (male) naked athletes. 

These three boys of differing body types are at an Athenian gymnasium where middle and upper class men and boys trained almost every day. The word 'gymnasium' comes from the Greek for naked, gymnos (spelled gamma, ipsilon, mi, ni, omicron, sigma - there are no Greek fonts for this blog!) 

My audience of year 6 students asked, "Why were they naked?" If I remember correctly, my answer was along the lines that 
1)  it was only the men and boys, and they did not see why not
2)  the weather was often hot
3)  they had no problem showing off their physical beauty. 

Concerning point 1, I think they did not see "why not" because their religion did not suggest they should cover their bodies. The Christian Bible was written many centuries later. Genesis chapter 3 vividly describes how Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and realised they were naked. They made aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves, but God ejected them from the Garden of Eden anyway. For Christians this has resulted in a belief through the centuries that we need to be ashamed of the parts of our bodies to do with reproduction. I don't know the Q'ran or other religions' bibles, but perhaps there are similar stories. In Ancient Greece (and some other religions, even now), such parts of the body were often seen as the sacred means of continuing the family and the tribe. There was no shame or guilt attached to them.

Concerning point 2, the weather in Greece, especially in July and August when athletics competitions were mainly held, can be very hot (at least 35 degrees C in the shade). So any clothes can feel unnecessary.
Men's 'chiton' or robe

Ionian Women's 'chiton'
And Ancient Greek clothes were mainly just pieces of cloth attached to the body by belts and/or brooches. This made them impractical when it came to sport. There's a story in Pausanias (I think, or it might be Homer. I can't find it again, of course!) that in the very early days, the runners wore loincloths. During one race, one runner's loincloth came off as he ran and he won! So it became the norm for athletes to train and compete without any clothes at all to impede them.

the Discobolos of Myron
This leads into point 3 above. Being naked was a way of showing off an athlete's perfect physique. The body-perfect was a theme for aspiration, discussion and artistic debate even more then, it seems, than it is now! Larissa Bonfante has written about 'nudity as a costume' in classical times.

So in the right circumstances, nakedness could be not only acceptable but desirable. However, on this blustery, damp day in early winter in northern England, those circumstances seem a long way away and a long time ago!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Hallowe'en and chthonic contacts

Hallowe'en tonight. I saw these magnificent pumpkins at a farm cafe yesterday. Not very ghostly without their inner lights, but quite savage looking! 

We don't admit to much contact with our ancestors these days, but in many cultures the ancestors are considered to be constantly present. It was so in ancient Greece, and there are various mentions of this in The Boy with Two Heads. I thought these two instances would be fitting for today.

If you have read the book you will know where they come from. If not, the first happens during the voyage on the Pelican. Someone has died and left a bag with a tablet in it. Captain Stomio, Themis, and Themis' uncle Panainos open it and read it so that they can deliver it to its addressee.

  The captain took his knife and carefully broke the seals … He laid the tablet on the deck in a patch of sunlight. The writing in the wax was clear. Panainos read it out.

  ‘ “To Diokles, Necromancer of Tainaron and Messenger of the Mighty Hades, greetings and felicitations. May the spirits speak truth through you. … The bearer of this tablet will bring you a boy, Themistokles, son of Kallistos.” ’

  They all looked at each other in surprise. Panainos read on.
  ‘ “He will ask to speak with his dead father. You will arrange for his father to tell him … ” ’ Panainos looked up, horrified. Themis heart was beating so hard he could hardly breathe.
  ‘Go on,’ growled the captain, unsurprised.
  ‘ “ … You will arrange for his father to tell him that he must do as he has been chosen to do and uphold the honour of the family.” ’ Panainos turned to   Themis, his face grey. ‘This must be a joke,’ he said.
  ‘But what does it mean?’ asked Themis. ‘What have I been chosen to do?’
  ‘This kind of message must be going backwards and forwards to the Oracle all the time,’ said the captain. ‘I’ve been asked many times to deliver boxes of tablets or other messages to the necromancers there.’
  ‘Does it say anything else?’ asked Themis.
  Panainos read again: ‘ “… the honour of the family. … Bring the tablet to me afterwards”,’ went on Panainos in a monotone. ‘ “You will reap a silver reward of great value.” ’
  ‘Is there a signature?’ asked the captain.
  ‘Nothing,’ said Panainos, with a wondering shake of his head. …
  ‘I’ve never seen that seal before,’ said the captain. ‘But I’ve seen messages like that again and again. Do you know what it’s about?’
  The captain looked at Panainos, who looked back, his eyes wide open. After a moment he shook his head emphatically.
  ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what it means.’ … He snapped the tablet shut and handed it to the captain. …
  ‘So what was going on?’ Themis asked. ‘Was Molon going to arrange for me to hear a voice at the Oracle that was pretending to be my father?’
  ‘Many people believe that all the voices heard at the Oracle are false,’ said the captain as he got up.
  ‘That’s what it looks like,’ said Panainos. 

The second instance is later, when Themis is at Olympia. His father, who had died the previous winter, had asked another uncle to arrange for Themis to visit an Oracle on a certain day. The Oracle is in a cave similar to this one on the Akropolis in Athens.

  Behind the screen was another narrow entrance. A greenish glow came from the cave beyond. In the centre of the cave sat a hooded figure muffled in pale robes, swaying and murmuring. Themis could not tell whether the seer was male or female. The light seemed to come from a boulder at the back of the cave.
  The priest led Themis to stand close enough to be touched by the figure. A dull drum began to beat and a flute played long, single notes in an echoing melody. The walls of the cave glistened with crystals.
  The priest spoke clearly but quietly. ‘Themistokles, son of Kallistos is here. He comes to ask Mighty Zeus for his blessing and for his help in his trials and endeavours. He comes at the behest of his father, who is now with the multitudes in Hades. He comes to know that which Zeus expects of him and how he should achieve it.’
  The drum and music went on, but the light became dimmer and greener. The robed figure swayed more vigorously and its mumbling grew louder. …
  Themis felt slightly sick and began to shiver in spite of the cloak. The figure groaned loudly and sat still, stiff with tension. A breeze lifted the corner of its robes and brushed Themis’ hands and cheeks. ... The priest readied his writing tools.
  ‘When the boy with two heads,’ whispered the seer hoarsely, ‘wins without a fight, Athena will pay her dues.’
  As the priest wrote this down, the figure began to fall towards them, drawing tight, rasping breaths.
  Two men in black that Themis had not noticed glided forward from beside the doorway. One politely moved Themis and the priest out of the way and the other caught the seer before he – or she – hit the floor.
  The first man whispered to the priest. ‘Do you need interpretation?’
  ‘Thank you,’ said the priest quietly. ‘The words are quite clear.’
  Themis’ teeth were chattering. The seer began to jerk and groan as they turned and left. The music had stopped.

These contacts with the Underworld of gods and ghosts are known as chthonic or kthonic, from the ancient Greek word for the earth (as opposed to sky). They pervaded most facets of life then, it seems. We don't have the same reverence now, but we still like to create those shivers down our spines, especially in Young Adult fiction ...

Enjoy this special night!