11.19.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2.2: The Greek & Norse Myths
The Greek Myths (2): Vivid Images to Inspire a Fantasy Writer, Ancient History to Lure a Scholar into the Labyrinth!
Simply put, in learning about matters mythological, I was also becoming conversant with matters historical. That is, while you can certainly read the Greek myths as individual stories and emerge with the moral at the end, I think that the myths gain a little more “flavor” and depth if you take the time to open an atlas and find Greece, or click on britannica.com to find out more about the sources for that mythology (for the Greeks, start with: Homer, Hesiod, Aeschlyus, Sophocles, and Euripides; for the Romans, go to Ovid, Virgil).
Back in a pre-Internet/pre-Google age, however, I’d read the myth, then go to the library and find places or people mentioned, which led me to either atlases, encyclopedias, or entire books on the subject, and then I’d decide if I’d keep pursuing the tale to the end, or regroup and return to another tale (and start the process all over). For example, when I read about Theseus going to Crete and fighting the Minotaur in the labyrinth of King Minos, it didn’t take much effort to find Crete on a map, then look up the island in an encyclopedia, and discover that not only was there a rich archaeological history to the island (Palace of Knossos), but that the island was the center of an Aegean civilization called the Minoans. [The Minoans were a civilization that reached a height of power between 1700-1600 B.C., and whose archaeological remains were discovered by Arthur Evans at the turn of the 19th & 20th centuries A.D. Besides revealing a thriving maritime culture for that time, the palace structures, & Linear A and Linear B scripts reveal far-spanning — if as yet not completely understood — connections between the Minoans & Mycenaean peoples and mainland Greece.]
My attempts at following up on things I learned in myths sounds more exhausting than it was, given that some days I had all the time in the world to find this stuff out because most of my afternoons were spent in a library! (If you read an earlier blog, you’ll recall that I was in a library for 2-4 hours a day after school while my brother and I waited for my father to get off work.) Little did I know then that — like following the string Ariadne laid for Theseus to follow — those mini “search-and-find” expeditions were leading me through a labyrinth of learning and familiarization with libraries that prepped (& interested) me in historical research. At the time, though, all I knew was that playing literary and historical detective in search for more clues to the background of Greek myths was fun!
Decades later, whenever I teach Western Civ courses and get to the Bronze Age civilizations of the Minoans & Mycenaeans, I still inwardly smile at the memory of those initial encounters with ancient peoples via the Greek myths. I may begin my epic fantasy series The Artifacts of Destiny in the Levant of the Crusades because the storyline demands it, but when I describe historical locales in the book, those depictions also convey direct links to those childhood memories of imagining myself in the Greek Isles and places all over the eastern Mediterranean littoral.
Some of the more famous islands (Crete & Cyprus) will get more “air-time” in later books of the series, but even in The Codex Lacrimae: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight, the remnants of the Greco-Roman antiquity that arose from Greek mythological times loom everywhere around my characters. Clarinda meets Urd in Hagia Sophia (the still-used architectural wonder built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th c. AD), and the weight of over half a millennium of Byzantine history and people fills the basilican air as she hears her Fate revealed by one of the Norns. Yes, that moment occurs in 1185, a time some millennia past the time of the Greek myths. But, one has to remember that the Byzantines still thought of themselves as the “Roman Empire” until the city fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, two and a half centuries after Clarinda’s conversation! But, even in Clarinda’s time (12th century), the rulers and citizens of Constantinople lived in a thriving metropolis that was considered one of the “wonders of the world” by medieval Europeans. Byzantines thought of themselves as direct descendants of Julius Caesar, and heirs to all of Greco-Roman antiquity that stretched beyond him back to the time of Homer and Hesiod and the ancient Athenian/Spartan city-states.
As a historian, I’m always bouncing around in time because I’m aware that to the people living in the moment, the past was a usable, common part of their everyday life. I try to bring this commonplace perception to light in my fiction. For instance, in my novel, when Genevieve, Alex, and Clarinda flee Constantinople on a quest to find Clarinda’s father, they first go to a battered old tavern in the Genoese Quarter of the Harbor of the Golden Horn, a natural port whose dockside one can still walk along in modern Istanbul, eight hundred years after the Italian seamen & tradespeople of Clarinda’s world carved their own cultural niche in the imperial city. Moreover, when Clarinda sails with her companions to Caesarea (a coastal city in modern-day Israel, between Haifa & Tel Aviv), she reaches the ruins of a fortified harbor that King Herod of the Bible built between 25-13 BC to honor the Emperor Augustus, over 1,200 years before her own time!
Although time has taken its toll on all of these places (with many sites in ruins), they still exist. If you want to recreate the journeys of Odysseus, or see the palace structure of King Minos, a traveler merely needs to get to the eastern Mediterranean locales mentioned in the Greek myths, and you can walk the same sandy beaches trod upon by Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, and all the rest of the Greek mythological heroes who have stimulated young (and old) imaginations for millennia. Failing a personal tour of antiquity, though, a well-written tale can transport you there in the time it takes to read a paragraph! [That being said, depending on the part of the eastern Mediterranean to which you want to travel, current circumstances might make just that kind of touring too dangerous. This past summer, the Krak des Chevaliers, one of the main settings of The Codex Lacrimae, came under direct threat when bombs from the Syrian government were dropped in neighborhoods around the castle. See http://www.youtube.com/. Thankfully, as far as I can tell, the castle itself seems to have been undamaged so far, although one can only guess at the toll being taken on the civilian population. As a cultural heritage site, and one of best-preserved medieval castles in the world, I sincerely hope that the Krak can emerge unscathed from this civil war.]
As I recount my journey toward becoming an epic fantasy author, I conclude these two blogs on the influence of Greek myths with a couple of observations. In the first place, while we all reach our careers by following different paths, for me, a couple of prerequisites for the historian’s craft were always finding pleasure in the study of “old things,” and discovering an abiding interest in mythology. That interest really began with learning the Greek myths. In the second place, it also helped enormously to have the extra assets of great teachers, a library card, and parents who let me read anything, because all those factors collectively gave me the support I needed to follow those ancient stories into places that stretched far beyond a myth’s ending.
However, for all the lessons and excitement that I took from the Greek myths, those stories weren’t what really set fire to my writing & creative side. That ignition flared when I took up a book of Norse myths at my grandmother’s house… .
Next Time: The Norse Myths: Sails of Imagination Filled with Winds of the Viking Age!