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Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

I started Hand of Fire in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles. I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. The initial inspiration for Hand of Fire was this psychological puzzle.

Even though I’m a Classicist with training in ancient literature and languages, I realized I had a lot of research to do in order to discover an historical Briseis. I knew a fair amount about the Mycenaean Greeks who, according to Homer’s tale, beached their ships in front of Troy and besieged the city. I’d been taught in a vague sort of way that the Trojans were the cultural equivalent of these Greeks. After all, Homer shows them praying to the same gods and various other similarities (that we now know are inaccurate). To excuse Homer, he lived several centuries after the events he depicts, and I’ll remind you that Shakespeare dressed his Romans in Elizabethan garb. Our ideas of how to depict people from “long ago” have changed in the last three millennia.

That may excuse Homer, but it doesn’t excuse my opening assumption that the Trojans were a version of Greeks. I soon discovered that quite recently a whole new world had been dug out of archaeological sites all across Turkey where the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War was situated. The long lost empire of the Hittites, as powerful as the Egyptians and Assyrians, had been brought into living detail, and it was clear the Hittites were the real cultural cousins of the Trojans. We have treaties between Troy and the Hittite Great King and the material finds of Troy on the western coast mirror those from the Hittite capital far to the east, near modern Anakara.

I started Hand of Fire in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles. I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. The initial inspiration for Hand of Fire was this psychological puzzle.

Even though I’m a Classicist with training in ancient literature and languages, I realized I had a lot of research to do in order to discover an historical Briseis. I knew a fair amount about the Mycenaean Greeks who, according to Homer’s tale, beached their ships in front of Troy and besieged the city. I’d been taught in a vague sort of way that the Trojans were the cultural equivalent of these Greeks. After all, Homer shows them praying to the same gods and various other similarities (that we now know are inaccurate). To excuse Homer, he lived several centuries after the events he depicts, and I’ll remind you that Shakespeare dressed his Romans in Elizabethan garb. Our ideas of how to depict people from “long ago” have changed in the last three millennia.

That may excuse Homer, but it doesn’t excuse my opening assumption that the Trojans were a version of Greeks. I soon discovered that quite recently a whole new world had been dug out of archaeological sites all across Turkey where the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War was situated. The long lost empire of the Hittites, as powerful as the Egyptians and Assyrians, had been brought into living detail, and it was clear the Hittites were the real cultural cousins of the Trojans. We have treaties between Troy and the Hittite Great King and the material finds of Troy on the western coast mirror those from the Hittite capital far to the east, near modern Anakara.

So now I had a second inspiration. For the first time, a writer could reconstruct what Briseis’s life might really have been filled with. Even if I’d tried to write Hand of Fire as an undergraduate, the material would not yet have been there for the work. Briseis, herself, may never actually have lived. She may be the figment of a bard’s imagination, but if I wanted to answer that question—how could the Homeric Briseis love Achilles—I needed a real, flesh and blood woman from the pages of history (or in this case the clay tablets of history since that is the form of the Hittite libraries). Now I knew where to look. I found, for example, in those clay cuneiform libraries, a perfect job for her: that of a healing priestess, called in Hittite hasawa. These women served as healers (like Achilles), singers of tales (like Achilles) and leaders of their people (like Achilles). A woman strong enough to challenge the mightiest of the Greeks began to climb out of the dusty clay and live in my imagination. Eventually she answered my question in Hand of Fire.

About Judith:

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Her novel, Hand of Fire (Fireship Press, September 2014), brings Briseis to life against the mythic backdrop of the Trojan War. Thrust into leadership as a young woman, she must protect her family and city. Sickness and war threaten. She gains much-needed strength from visions of a handsome warrior god, but will that be enough when the mighty, half-immortal Achilles attacks?

An excerpt from Hand of Fire, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical tidbits as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community can be found on her  website www.judithstarkston.com.

You can also connect with her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston)

or on Twitter (https://twitter.com/JudithStarkston).

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DJ Niko explains why the Ancient World matters today

I am delighted to welcome D J Niko to give us her thoughts on why the Ancient World matters. Scroll down to yesterday’s post for a review of her page-turning novel The Tenth Saint.

Why the Ancient World Matters

People often ask me why I choose to write about the characters, places, and legends of antiquity. Wouldn’t it be easier to research more recent history, which is far better documented, they ask. Well, of course it would be … but it wouldn’t be as much fun, at least not for me. (Doing things the hard way is one of my more charming qualities.)

As a native Greek, the ancient world is in my DNA. Perhaps it’s my own ancestral memory talking, but I believe the ancients have much to teach us. My characters, an archaeologist and an anthropologist, believe this too—and get into a lot of hot water trying to preserve the relics and wisdom left behind by ancient civilizations.

Life is a continuum: the past informs our present and defines our future. Listening to the whispers of antiquity may be a bit geeky (guilty!), but it is absolutely relevant, even in these fast-paced times. Here are a few lessons from the past that still matter:

  1. People of antiquity cared about and learned from nature. The ancient philosopher Heraclitus and other pre-Socratic Greeks saw nature as the perfect order and believed wise men exist within that order rather than try to alter it. They also patterned their teachings after what they observed in nature. Heraclitus once said, “Reality is a moving river into which humans cannot step twice.” Pretty astute, no?
  2. Virtue and integrity were the foundation of ancient civilizations. When those degraded, empires fell and societies were plunged into chaos. Since I have King Solomon on the brain, I will share his example. Solomon took the throne as a humble “babe” who knew nothing about ruling or shaping a people’s destiny. When asked by God what he wanted more than anything, he said “wisdom.” But as his power base and influence grew, he became complacent and even greedy. He did not exercise restraint; he was above it all. The result was his moral decline, the discontent of the populace, and, ultimately, the ruin of his united kingdom.
  3. The ancients found joy in moderation. Overstimulation does not necessarily translate into happiness. Ancient Asians took the “middle way” or “golden mean”—the balance between two extremes (excess and paucity). Confucius came up with the Doctrine of the Mean, which is too complicated to go into here; let’s just say it upheld the notion of equilibrium through honesty, fairness, restraint, and propriety. Ancient Greeks were all about moderation, too. The inscription on the gate to the temple of Apollo in Delphi says it all: “Nothing in excess.”

I could go on and on about this subject. For more, check out my hashtag #ancientwisdom on Twitter, or my blog, Ancient World Legends and Myths, on www.djnikobooks.com or www.goodreads.com/djniko. Thanks for letting me stop by!!

Many thanks to Daphne for this food for thought.