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).