From the monthly archives: November 2011

More exciting US pre-publication news: Library Journal just gave The Song of Achilles a starred review!  Here’s an excerpt:

Miller’s degrees in Latin and Greek as well as her passion for the theater and the history of the ancient world have given her the tools to create a masterly vision of the drama, valor, and tragedy of the Trojan War. Readers who loved Mary Renault’s epic novels will be thrilled with Miller’s portrayal of ancient Greece. This reviewer can’t wait to see what she writes next.” —Jane Henriksen Baird, Anchorage P.L., AK

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Monday, November 28th, 2011.

The Sip of Life, a website based in India with a delightfully diverse array of articles and features, is running an interview with me for its “Newsmaker of the Week” column.  In it I talk about how I began studying the Classics, my novel’s relationship to Homer, and more.

 

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The myth of the week today continues the story of Echo and the beautiful youth Narcissus, most infamous of self-lovers.

Narcissus was the mortal child of the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephisus. When he was young, his mother consulted the prophet Teiresias about his life, hoping to hear that her son would be long-lived.  Teiresias answered that the boy would have a long and happy life, “If he never knows himself.”  This response would have been especially riddlesome in the ancient world where the exhortation to “know thyself” was revered, even carved onto the temple of the oracle at Delphi.

Narcissus grew up to be so beautiful that all who saw him, boys and girls alike, desired him.   But he spurned them all, preferring to wander by himself on the hillsides and in the forests.  In this he seems to bear some resemblance to another famous looker, Adonis, who rejected even the goddess of love.  Interestingly, both young men end up transformed into flowers.

Venus awakening Adonis, John William Waterhouse

One of the most enthusiastic of Narcissus’ admirers was the nymph Echo, now robbed of her voice.  She took to trailing after him, pitifully hoping that he might speak, so that she could respond.  This was a favorite aspect of the story for ancient authors—finding clever ways for Narcissus to say something rejecting, so that Echo could repeat the last part of it lovingly.  Something like “I don’t want you to touch me!” “Touch me!”  The frustration on either side could certainly be played for the comic—and I can’t help thinking of Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet Narcissus continued to refuse her.  Rejected, love-stricken and ashamed, Echo hid herself in caves, wasting away from unrequited love until there was nothing left of her but bones and her voice.  A sad end for such a once-spirited girl.  Narcissus, of course, didn’t notice a thing.

Dead Narcissus, with wasting Echo in the background

Soon after, Narcissus catches sight of himself for the first time in the surface of a pond, and falls instantly in love with his own image—which always serves as a reminder of how scarce mirrors were in the ancient world.  Nowadays, Narcissus would have fallen for himself a lot sooner, maybe even while still in the cradle.  Seems like there’s an update of the myth there, just begging to be written….

In one interesting variant, Narcissus’ self-love is actually the result of a curse. One of Narcissus’ rejected lovers, the youth Ameinias, kills himself in despair, and with his last breath calls upon the goddess Nemesis to punish Narcissus for his coldness.  The dreadful goddess comes up with a perfect torment, condemning Narcissus to fall in love with the only person he can’t have: himself.  Upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Narcissus is so entranced that he forgets to eat or sleep, slowly dying of self-neglect.  Echo, ever loyal, echoes his cries of pain with her own.  At last, rather than seeing such beauty lost, the gods transform the boy into a flower, the narcissus.

A narcissus

Narcissus’ story has been a popular one in literature.  Ancient authors, Ovid in particular, delighted in Narcissus’ fatuous confusion over why the boy in the water would not come to him.  They linger in their descriptions of him throwing out his arms, trying to reach through the water, weeping and taking heart from the fact that the image wept also.  It is a breath of fresh air then, when Pausanias tartly remarks: “It is utterly stupid to think that a man old enough to be in love would not be able to distinguish a man from his reflection.”  Indeed.  I prefer the versions of the story where Narcissus knows that the reflection is himself, and dies from grief at the sheer impossibility of his love.

Narcissus languishing by his reflection, Nicolas Bernardt Lepicie

Narcissus also shows up in more modern works, including a verse in A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” where the reflective pool is the speaker’s own eyes.  Herman Hesse’s novel “Narcissus and Goldmund” is also distantly inspired by the myth, with Narcissus fixated upon intellect and the life of the mind, rather than his own face.

Narcissus (I’m sure he would be glad to hear) was also quite popular in art.  There was something about the languishing youth that proved catnip to artists through the ages.  According to The Oxford Classical Dictionary there are over fifty murals on this theme from Pompeii alone, and he was a common subject in Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite art as well.

Last, but definitely not least, there is psychology. Thanks to his eponymous personality disorder, Narcissus’ name has become a household word, maybe even equaling Achilles’ famous heel.  The DSM-IV describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:  “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood.” According to a recent book “The Narcissism Epidemic” the disorder is on the rise, with 1 in 10 people young people showing clinical signs of the personality disorder.  If it’s true, we must have made Nemesis quite annoyed indeed.

Narcissus in the 16th century, Caravaggio

But back to the ancient world.  The Greeks and Romans were keen appreciators of beauty, especially male.  Though there are certainly myths revolving around a woman’s beauty (Helen and the Trojan War, for instance), there seem to be many more about gorgeous, and often tragic, young men.  Narcissus takes his place in a firm pantheon that includes Ganymede, Hyacinthus, Achilles, Hylas, Paris, Endymion, and many more, all with their own interesting stories.  As a final note, writing this post has made me much more self-conscious about any time spent in front of the mirror….

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Happy Myth of the Week!  (Also, for US readers, happy Thanksgiving!)  Today’s myth comes to you as a suggestion from the terrific Algonquin Books (@AlgonquinBooks).  It’s the first of a series about that most famous of love triangles: Echo, Narcissus and…Narcissus.

The Nymph Echo looks longingly at the self-absorbed Narcissus. John William Waterhouse

Since the story ends with Narcissus, I wanted to start with Echo.  In mythology, she is best known for her eponymous ability: always repeating another person’s words back to them.  But the lesser known story is how she got that way.  When the mountain-nymph Echo was born, she could speak just like anyone else.  Better, in fact: she was naturally garrulous and loved to entertain others with stories and talk.  She was also clever, and noticed that whenever Zeus would sneak down to earth in order to have affairs with nymphs, his jealous wife Hera would inevitably catch him in the act.  So the next time Hera came looking for her husband, Echo waylaid her with conversation, delaying her until the nymph and Zeus could escape.

The Goddess Hera

As numerous miserable heroes can tell you, if there is one person you don’t want to make angry in Greek mythology, it’s Hera. When the queen of the gods discovered Echo’s trick, she cursed her, robbing her of her power to speak for herself, and decreeing that hereafter the girl could only echo the words of others. I always felt that this was a deviously cruel punishment for someone who loved to express herself—doomed to never again voice an original thought.

But why would Echo try to stop Hera in the first place? The stories don’t really say.  Some seem to imply that she was trying to curry favor with Zeus.  But if I were writing the myth (and today I am), I like to give her a more noble motivation: she was trying to help her poor nymph sisters.  Whenever Hera caught her husband with another woman, it wasn’t Zeus she punished, but the girl, who ended up as a cow, a bear, dead, or living in eternal torment.  This seems additionally unfair given how often the girl in question was unwilling.  So I like to think that Echo was trying to stop Hera in the hopes that one of her sisters might be spared the great goddess’ ill-aimed wrath.

A Stinging Gadfly, of the type Hera sent to torment the nymph Io.

Given the ancient Greek appreciation for fast-talking heroes like Odysseus, it is interesting to note that none of the ancient sources praise Echo’s clever gift with words.  If anything, they seem to feel that she deserved it—she probably shouldn’t have been talking so much in the first place.  This unfairness becomes even more apparent when you compare her to another ancient with the gift of the gab: Hermes.  When the nymph Io was being held captive by the hundred-eyed watchman Argus, Hermes rescued her by talking endlessly, literally boring Argus to death.  Ever afterwards he was given the honorific title “Argus-killer.” So, if we’re really being fair, I think Echo should have gotten at least a “Hera-staller.”

Hermes boring Argus, with Io as a cow in the background. Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov

And, while we’re praising Echo, let’s also give her credit for the cleverness of her stratagem—especially since nymphs weren’t generally known for their brains.*  Echo came up with a brilliant and perfect trap: social convention.  Next time you’re stuck in conversation with someone, maybe it will help to remember that the queen of the gods couldn’t escape either.

*A notable exception is the nymph Sinope, who, about to be ravished by Zeus, begged him for a single wish.  He granted it, and she said, “I wish to remain a virgin.”  Bound by his oath Zeus was forced to leave her alone.  Apparently, she also successfully used this same trick on Apollo and the river-god Halys.

 

Coming soon:  Part II:  Narcissus, Narcissus, Narcissus.

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Today’s Myth of the Week was suggested by the lovely Jane Rusbridge, author of “The Devil’s Music” and twitter-pro extraordinaire.  If you have a request of your own, drop me a line and I will happily add it to the list!

The Minotaur (literally, the ‘bull of Minos’) was a half-man, half-bull monster born to Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete.  The name Minotaur is actually a bit misleading—because he wasn’t Minos’ son at all.  His father was a pure white bull, sacred to the god Poseidon. In one version of the story, Minos refused to sacrifice the bull to the sea-god, as he had promised.  As vengeance, Poseidon struck Minos’ queen Pasiphae with an overwhelming sexual desire for the bull.

The ancient authors were not shy about the details of how Pasiphae and the bull came together.  According to the myth, the master craftsman Daedalus (of Icarus and labyrinth fame), agreed to help the besotted Pasiphae by building a wooden frame of a cow, then skinning a real cow, and stretching the hide over the frame.  Pasiphae then climbed inside, and the cow was wheeled out, and placed near the bull.  Nine months later the flesh-eating Minotaur was born, a “memorial of unspeakable love,” as Vergil calls it.

Pasiphae and infant Minotaur. It was common in ancient Greek art to depict children as having adult bodies, just miniaturized.

It’s no surprise that the Minotaur turned out to be terrifyingly powerful: his mother’s sister is the witch Circe, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, and her brother is Aeetes, father of Medea.  But Daedalus once again came to the rescue, offering to build the labyrinth, a maze from which the creature could never escape.  Sadly, there are no archaeological remnants of Daedalus’ marvel (if it existed), but the remains of the palace at Knossos are absolutely amazing.

In order to feed the Minotaur, King Minos demanded that Athens (which owed him, for killing Minos’ son Androgeos) send seven boys and seven girls, either every year or every nine years (depending on the myth).  This is where the well-known myth of Theseus picks up—Theseus goes to Crete as one of these youths, and unravels the maze with the help of the princess Ariadne and Daedalus.  His killing of the Minotaur was a very popular subject in art both ancient and modern.

Theseus killing the Minotaur

From here, the story branches off in many different directions–there is Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, then wedded to the god Dionysus, Daedalus and his son Icarus, and Theseus’ disastrous return home to Athens.  But let’s stay with the Minotaur.  Unlike centaurs, who were a race themselves, the Minotaur was the only one of his kind.  And though we know him simply as the Minotaur, the creature had a given name too: “Asterion,” which literally means “the starry one,” perhaps signifying a link to the constellation Taurus.  To me, the name has always implied a fascinating but untold interiority: was the Minotaur also, somewhat, a person?  In a Catullus poem, Ariadne says that she “chose to lose [her] brother” instead of letting Theseus die.  Startling to hear her call the Minotaur her brother—but of course he is.  Catullus also has a lovely simile comparing the Minotaur’s tossing horns to a tree’s tossing branches, while a storm (Theseus) tears it up by the roots.  I keep waiting for someone to write this myth from the Minotaur’s perspective.

Coin from Crete showing the Minotaur, fifth century B.C.E

On that note, I just discovered a novel called “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break” by Steven Sherrill which I love on title alone, and can’t wait to read.  If you are looking for other adaptations of the story there are, of course, Mary Renault’s canonical retellings of the Theseus myth, “The Bull from the Sea” and “The King Must Die.”  For something a bit more unusual, there is also Stephen King’s “Rose Madder” which draws on the Minotaur myth in a story about domestic violence.  And for something really, really unusual there is Victor Pelevin’s “The Helmet of Horror” where the labyrinth is an internet chat-room.

A few more thoughts on the Minotaur: this story also has some interesting symbolic references.  The bull was one of the symbols sacred to Crete, and there is some speculation that its famous “bull-dancers” may have been acting out parts of this myth, or that the myth derived from the practice.

Cretan Bull-Dancers, Fresco from Knossos

The myth also clearly refers back to a time when Crete, and its Minoan civilization, ruled the Mediterranean: Athens felt it must pay the tribute or be destroyed by the more powerful kingdom.

Finally, one of the strangest parts of the myth to me (and one that always bothered me as a child) was the fact that the Minotaur’s half-bull head was flesh-eating.  Shouldn’t it simply be vegetarian?  But then, I guess, there wouldn’t be much of a story.

Want more?  Check out theoi.org’s Minotaur page.  See you next week!

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011.

Some early exciting news for the upcoming US publication: Publisher’s Weekly has chosen The Song of Achilles as its Pick of the Week!  Here’s an excerpt from the starred review:

“With language both evocative of her predecessors and fresh, and through familiar scenes that explore new territory, this first-time novelist masterfully brings to life an imaginative yet informed vision of ancient Greece featuring divinely human gods and larger-than-life mortals. She breaks new ground retelling one of the world’s oldest stories about men in love and war, but it is the extraordinary women—Iphigenia, Briseis, and Thetis—who promise readers remarkable things to come as Miller carves out a custom-made niche in historical fiction.”

For the full review, click here.

 

Monday, November 7th, 2011.

After Medea, Queen Clytemnestra is probably the most notorious woman in Greek mythology. She is also one of the most magnetic, mesmerizing in her fierce determination to kill the man who killed her daughter.  That this man happens to be her husband, and that she chooses to dispatch him in his bath-tub with an ax, makes her a storyteller’s lurid dream.

Though there are countless depictions of Clytemnestra in ancient and modern works alike, the most enduring has been that in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.  His Clytemnestra is bloody, bold and resolute, a proud lioness, fiercely protective of her children.  After the murder, she does not try to hide or run, but strides victoriously before her people, gore-stained ax in hand, declaring that justice has been served.

Clytemnestra, After the Murder

Clytemnestra was born into a mythological epicenter.  Her father was King Tyndareus of Sparta and her mother Queen Leda—the same who was later impregnated by Zeus, in the form of a swan.  A potent family: Helen was her half-sister, Penelope her cousin, and the semi-divine duo Castor and Polydeuces her brothers.  She married a man with a similarly powerful lineage, Agamemnon of House Atreus, King of Mycenae.

Division between Clytemnestra and her husband began with the Trojan War.  Agamemnon and Menelaus’ fleet, set to sail for Troy, was stuck at harbor, with no wind to carry it.  A priest revealed that the goddess Artemis was angry and Agamemnon could appease her by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia.  The ambitious king agreed.  By the time word reached Clytemnestra, the girl was dead and Agamemnon had already sailed.

Clytemnestra isn’t the only woman in Greek mythology to lose a child.  Queen Hecuba was eventually driven mad with grief and transformed into a dog, and Niobe cried so much for her lost children the gods took pity and made her a rock.  But only Clytemnestra chooses retaliation over grief.  And this is what makes her such a fascinating and scandalous figure in the ancient world–she is a woman who takes upon herself the traditionally masculine role of avenger, meter out of justice, judge of who should live, and who must die.

For the ten years Agamemnon was away at Troy, Clytemnestra plotted her revenge.  She found a partner and lover in Aegisthos, a long-lost cousin of Agamemnon, back for his own vengeance: Agamemnon’s father had killed his brothers.  (I’ll save the dysfunctional and murderous history of the House of Atreus for another day, but parricide, incest and cannibalism abound.)  The two planned to rule the kingdom together, after Agamemnon’s death.  Sexually faithless, deceitful, murderous: Clytemnestra is the incarnation of ancient anxieties about women and power.

Mycenaean-era bathtub, from Nestor's Palace at Pylos

When Agamemnon returned, bringing as his slave the Trojan princess Cassandra, Clytemnestra welcomed him warmly and led him to the fateful bath.  In some versions of the story it is Aegisthos actually wielding the ax, and in others it is Clytemnestra.  I prefer the latter—I think after all those years, she’d want to do the swinging herself.  Afterwards, whether from jealousy, adrenaline or a neatening of accounts, she murdered Cassandra as well.

For me, this is one of the most poignant details of the story, and the most damning to Clytemnestra.  Cassandra has lived a wretched life: condemned to foresee the destruction of her family and city, but unable to stop it from happening, then dragged from the ruins of her city, violated and handed over to Agamemnon as a prize concubine. I have always wished at this moment for Clytemnestra to pause, and recognize that Cassandra was more ally then enemy—surely she must have hated Agamemnon as much as Clytemnestra did.  But reflection and empathy aren’t the queen’s strengths.  Cassandra is an intruder, and must die.

The cycle of blood does not stop there.  Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, is bound by honor to avenge his father.  Urged on by his sister, Electra (of the infamous ‘Electra complex’), he kills both Aegisthos and his mother.  From the underworld, the ghost of Clytemnestra sends furies to torment her son, enraged that he would choose his father’s cause over hers.  Even death, it seems, cannot contain her.

The Remorse of Orestes, William Adolphe Bouguereau

In the end, how much sympathy we have for this powerful queen hinges significantly upon how we judge her husband.  The king has many offenses of his own, beyond sacrificing his daughter: cowardice, greed, rape, reckless endangerment of his army, and the destruction of a city.  In my opinion?  I think Agamemnon had it coming.  And, given all the slave-girls he terrorizes during the Trojan War, I can’t help but find it poetic justice that it’s a woman who does the deed.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of attending the Open Book Cape Town Festival in South Africa.  It was the first time I had ever been to SA (or Africa at all), and it was absolutely amazing.  Aside from the knock-you-over physical beauty of the landscape, I loved getting to meet so many passionate booklovers and booksellers.  So I was thrilled and honored to hear that Exclusive Books, a South African bookseller, has included The Song of Achilles on its 2011 “Wish List” for the festive season!

 

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While I was at the Open Book Cape Town Literary Festival, I was interviewed by the wonderful Clive Chandler, a Classics Professor at Cape Town University.  He asked if the character of Chiron in The Song of Achilles had been in any way inspired by my own teaching.

Chiron is a master teacher, so this was a lovely question to be asked.  But the truth is, Chiron came much more out of my experiences as a student.  I am fortunate to have had some truly terrific teachers in my life, who were instrumental in nurturing my enthusiasm for literature, Classics, and learning in general.  Chiron isn’t based on any of them (he’s very much his own person, er, horse-person), but he does share with them some of the qualities of excellent teaching: a passion for communicating knowledge, an emphasis on the individual student, and a deep-seated curiosity about the world.  And, like them, he believes in seizing the moment—in allowing student interest, or current events, to draw the class outside the lines of the lesson.

One of my favorite memories of this kind of teaching is from my high school Latin class.  We were translating the Aeneid, the section where Aeneas’ fleet reaches the Libyan shore.  Vergil takes his time describing the scene—the natural harbor, the overhanging cliffs, the dark groves.  It was beautiful writing, but dense, and the class was finding it dry.

“I don’t get it,” a student complained.  “He’s describing all this stuff, but I have no idea where it all goes.”

“Let’s draw it,” my teacher said.  “Volunteers?”  He opened a brand-new box of colored chalk, and offered it to us.  A few students bounded to the board and started sketching excitedly.  The rest of us scoured the text, offering suggestions (“The forests should be on top of the cliff!”), intent on making the image perfectly match Vergil’s words.  The ringing bell came as a shock.  Hadn’t we just started?

It was such a simple thing for my teacher to do, but utterly transformative.  He completely changed the energy of the class, and brought us back to the material with new, enthusiastic eyes.  That kind of flexibility is something I have striven to emulate in my own classroom.  Yes, it can lead to some unproductive digressions (“Who was that guy who got pantsed by Apollo?“) but those are more than made up for by the many times that it invigorates the class, and sparks new discussion.

Three cheers for Chiron and master teachers everywhere!