It’s been a while guys…I know. I always feel a bit guilty about leaving it so long between drinks but when you’re working, doing uni, writing books and publishing, shit is bound to get a bit hectic.
Right. I’ve been underground finishing off a great Ancient History unit on the Later Roman Empire, getting inspired and fuelled for a future book I’m researching, and trying to keep my head above water. If you follow my social media you’ll know Cry of the Firebird was a no 1 best seller in September in the Amazon store – holy shit guys what a moment. Which brings me to my next topic.
In September, the reason why I managed to sell as many books as I did was my exclusivity period with Amazon finished and I launched Cry of the Firebird across all e-book platforms. I’ve been getting messages from a whole swathe new readers about the other books and I can safely say, at the beginning of December Ashes of the Firebird and Rise of the Firebird will be universally released. At the moment they are still under exclusivity so sorry, we have to wait. I’m not sure if I am going to do a pre-order for them as there is some behind the scenes tweaking that needs to be sorted before that can happen. Also, I have just (literally in the last 30 minutes) finished sexy second editions of all of the Firebirds and damn, that’s a shit tonne of words to edit and format. I’m waiting on proofs of the new paperbacks to arrive but the digitals are up and looking gorgeous. I wanted to do second editions for a whole bunch of reasons. Mainly, because no matter how many editors you use, and eyes go over your work to check and re-check, pesky mistakes still seem to get through. Also, I am an Aussie and I wanted US spelling and Grammar editions as most of my readers are currently in the US. It was a huge undertaking (I’m so dead all I want is vodka and Lord of the Rings movies) but I am really happy with the results and I hope you are too. I’m super blessed as an indie publisher that I can make these changes and be so much happier with the end product.
In Blood Lake Chroniclesnews, WYLT has also been released universally and I’ve had HEAPS of messages about WHERE THE FUCK IS BLAISE. I can tell you finally that it’s currently with my kick-ass cover designer, Fiona, who is making something truly fucking amazing. This series, this character, is super important to me so I want the cover and story right. It’s a tricky time of year for freelance editors and designers which is why I haven’t announced a pre-order for it. As soon as I have all the pieces in my hot hands you guys will be the first to know. I am aiming for mid-December but I won’t make promises without all those pieces. It is coming soon. Writing on book three, KINGDOM, has started slowly due to the mad fucking rush to get second editions of the Firebird Fairytales completed but it HAS started and damn is it gonna be a ride. Now that most of my publisher’s workload is sorted I can put my Writer Hat back on and get stuck into it. It’s a lot more Celtic Myth and I’m loving how the beginning is shaping up.
I have been reading some holy shit amazing books lately. I won’t leave reviews for them because there isn’t enough time but the ones that have really blown my shit out of the water (and made me get FULL Imposter Syndrome) are as follows:
All SoulsTrilogy by Deborah Harkness. Vampires, Witches, Daemons, Alchemy, Oxford…This series hit EVERYONE of my weaknesses and damn, like if you need your faith restored in incredible vampire books, seriously look no further. It’s not a snack though, these books are MEALS. The writing is rich and incredible and you can tell Harkness seriously knows her shit. They are currently making the TV series with a whole cast of power house actors (Matthew Goode holy shit!) and I seriously can’t wait.
The Sarah Weston Novels by Magnus Flyte.Prague, Beethoven, Alchemy, Prodigies and Princes. After suffering from a massive book hangover from the All Souls Trilogy, this duology City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams, was the perfect soloution. It’s still keeping with alchemy and magic themes but tying in history and music aswell. It’s not as heavy as the Harkness books but they were still a great series. The magic in it is awesome.
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Mysticism, Art, lost loves, reincarnations, historical romance, medieval scriptoriums… this book has it all. You know how you have those books that you think ‘that looks great I really want to read that’ but it takes you forever to get to them? This was such a book. It’s been on my radar for years but like most books that fall into this category, it found me when I needed it most. I was suffering from a massive creative burn out and it was EXACTLY what I needed. It is an incredible book that ripped my heart clean out while re-building it at the same time. It’s structured like a modern-day Dante’s Inferno, that I am ridiculously obsessed with, and it just…no words. Still. It’s a hard one to explain but worth the time.
Okay so that’s all from me, for now. I will keep everyone posted on the BLAISE front and make lots of noise when all of the Firebirds are available universally. If you are doing NaNoWriMo, you are my hero and keep your chin up.
The success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, depicting warring Olympians and Amazons, continues to stoke moviegoer interest in Greek mythology. Wonder Woman is the first foray of D.C. movies into classical mythology, a path well trodden by the Marvel cinematic universe. But is Greek myth simply a favoured and enduring wellspring for heroic sagas full of supermen and monsters or are there deeper forces at play?
To the Greeks, the underworld journey was an ideal vehicle for the hero to display his exceptional qualities, often involving the rescue of a soul trapped there. A central convention of Greek mythological narratives is katabasis, the hero’s journey to the underworld or land of the dead. At Circe’s urging, Odysseus consults the seer Tiresias in the land of the dead, where many departed souls (including Achilles) appear to him. Similar journeys are made by Heracles who rescues Theseus during his twelfth labor; Hermes, who rescues Persephone from Hades; and Aeneas who is reunited briefly with his dead father.
Descents into and ascents from the underworld are themes incorporated repeatedly into modern cinema. Film developed from theatre, which in its earliest form was a way of animating mythical sagas. The katabasis has endured in cinema because it can be applied to most characters, times and settings. Often eschewing a literal journey to the underworld, a cinematic katabasis may follow a quest into a type of hell, whether a physical or psychological space.
One particularly celebrated underworld myth recounts Orpheus’s retrieval of his wife Eurydice. Against the warnings of Hades and Persephone, Orpheus looked back at her – only for his wife to disappear, this time permanently. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), drew directly on this myth by sending its hero, like Orpheus, into the realm of the dead to retrieve an imperilled soul trapped there.
Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne created a bleak vision of 1938 Los Angeles, parched by drought and corrupted by a shadowy cabal of oligarchs. Private investigator Jake Gittes, investigating the death of city water commissioner Hollis Mulwray, uncovers a web of corruption and murder. His attempts to rescue Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn, from the violence enveloping her results in her brutal death. In its shocking conclusion, Polanski rooted Chinatown more firmly in its mythological ancestry, pivoting the plot towards an incest revelation. Like Oedipus, redress comes through putting out eyes. Having failed to save his former love years before, Jake grieves over her death a second time with Evelyn.
Chinatown is broadly accepted as a response to Watergate. Like many films of its time, it responded to Nixon’s subversion of US political institutions by depicting a world where shadowy underworld denizens win and the hero fails to rescue his Eurydice from Hades.
In this response, Chinatown demonstrates how the influence of Greek mythological conventions on American filmmakers appears strongest during times of heightened political stress. When many perceived America as attacked from within by communism during the 1950s, for instance, Hollywood responded by reimagining Homer’s perfect warrior Achilles through the towering figure of John Wayne (through no coincidence, the most virulently anti-communist actor of all). In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Wayne’s embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards mutilates the body of Comanche war chief Scar to avenge Ethan’s defiled nieces. Like Achilles mutilating Hector in Homer’s Iliad, Ethan hates his enemies beyond death.
In the 1970s, a younger cadre of filmmakers and audiences saw the enemy sitting in seats of power. Underworld quests found more subversive avenues for expression, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which conveyed the horrors of the Vietnam war through a nightmarish journey up the river Styx.
Underworld narratives also formed part of Hollywood’s response to widespread moral panic around ritual abuse and child murder that spread throughout America in the 1980s and 1990s. The horrific sprees of society’s new apex predators like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, linked to hysterical rumours of organised child sacrifice, inspired a film cycle fuelled by pervasive anxiety that children could be snatched up and borne away to horrible fates in hidden lairs. When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the 1992 Oscars it was our neighbours or the corner grocer – not the government – preying on our fears.
Demme’s film deftly refashioned the myth of Theseus and the minotaur into a race-against-time manhunt. Cadet FBI agent Clarice Starling pursues a serial murderer who has abducted a Senator’s daughter. To track the beast, Clarice must descend into the den of captured cannibal monster Hannibal Lecter for clues to slay the monster at large, Buffalo Bill. For this underworld quest, Lecter is the pedagogue, not the monster. His role isn’t to eat Clarice (he passes up that opportunity when she ventures within striking distance) but to prepare her for her journey. Lecter provides the ball of string enabling Clarice to venture into the minotaur’s labyrinth and return.
Why does American cinema reflect Ancient Greek narrative conventions most strongly at times of profound social anxiety? The answer may lie in part in political similarities between Americans and ancient Athenians and the perceived vulnerability of their constitutional foundations.
Traditionalists interpret Greek art as an expression of soaring confidence in the triumph of humans over the old gods. But the Athenians were obsessed by the ephemerality of their achievement and how it rested on foundations that could collapse at any time. The late critic Robert Hughes once asserted that “ancient Greek sculpture is used to advance a specious political argument” of man being the measure of all things. Yet Greek art, he argued, was just as focussed on warding off monsters (representing political threats).
Ancient mythological themes are employed most unmistakably in American movies during times of “witch hunts” to expose hidden enemies: communist saboteurs in the 1950s, corrupt political burghers of the 1970s and the “satanic panic” of the 1980s. In response to 9/11, Hollywood was oddly reticent, as if the seismic scale of the event meant translating 9/11 to the screen was unimaginable. But television responded forcefully, particularly through the great HBO crime dramas – The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood – all of which at various times employed underworld sagas in confronting the scarring and resounding effects of violence.
Ancient myth and cinema in a time of Trump
What can we expect to see next as the rise of “Trumpism” promotes internal American division possibly unmatched since the civil war? Certainly, taking at face value Trump’s identified public enemy the “liberal media” (which includes filmmakers), US political institutions are under attack in a manner not seen since 1974. Like Nixon, Trump accuses his critics of witch hunts aimed at sabotaging the will of the people and uprooting American values.
We are yet to see reactions to the President reflected in cinema. Trump was elected ten months ago and has held office for only eight, so films responding to his Presidency are still in production. But the social trauma that saw the ascendancy of Trump’s base – the impoverishment of the “rust belt”, paranoia over Mexican gang culture, the erosion of the natural environment in the face of rapine corporations – are already part of the cinematic landscape.
And we are already seeing key political battlegrounds – the migration of drug crime across the southern border and the violation of the natural world at other frontiers – framed as underworld quests in film.
Director/screenwriter Taylor Sheridan recently explored issues of American decline in his unofficial “frontier trilogy”, using Greek mythological conventions to do so. The middle film, Hell or High Water (2016) is a relatively straightforward backwoods heist saga pitting bank-robbing brothers against a Texas ranger nearing retirement. The script reflects the financial angst of Trump voters, largely sympathising with their perceived disenfranchisement. But the first film, Sicario (2015) and the most recent, Wind River (2017) are dramatic bookends, using mythology to explore the social anxieties that saw Trump elected.
Directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, Sicario depicts an idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer, recruited by a government taskforce to combat drug cartels at the Mexican border. Overseen by a shadowy operative, Alejandro, Kate descends into a moral and literal abyss to track her quarry, eventually rejecting her handlers’ demands that she become a monster to fight monsters. In Wind River, the discovery of a young Arapaho woman’s body on a snowbound Wyoming reservation teams hunter Cory Lambert with another rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner, to track down her killer.
Wind River and Sicario are violent, electrifying films, which embrace Greek mythic conventions by sending their heroes to the realm of the dead both in pursuit of monsters and in embrace of loved ones.
In Sicario, Kate and Alejandro pursue the drug lord, Alarcon, across a Mexican landscape made hellish through darkness and night vision technology. Whereas Kate emerges from the underworld with her moral compass intact, Alejandro maddened by the murders of his wife and daughter now resides there permanently. As he tells Kate, “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf and this is a land of wolves now.”
In Wind River the murdered girl, Natalie, was a friend of Cory’s daughter – who had died in similar circumstances three years earlier. Like Orpheus, Cory experiences the loss of his beloved twice, heightening his corrosive need to have her back. But the land of the dead is not always hostile. In the film’s final scene, Cory and Natalie’s father Martin sit together in silence, mentally visiting their lost daughters in the spirit realm.
Both films are sprinkled with references to mythological deathscapes: frozen Wyoming mountains and darkened Mexican foothills become landscapes of dread. Cory, like the hero Heracles, is a hunter of lions; and wolves, traditional guardians of dead souls, embody links between living and dead.
Greek mythological conventions will likely again be used to critique what many see as a uniquely lawless US administration. It will pay to watch the output of Joss Whedon, for one, whose The Avengers (2012) depicted an Homeric world where spectacular battle scenes framed an exploration of the transformative effect of violence, the weight of heroic expectations and the toll both take on men and women who deal in warfare.
Few directors working today are as familiar with Greek heroic archetypes as Whedon. In his signature television production, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon reimagined the doomed Achilles as a teenage girl who at one point returned from a literal journey to the realm of the dead. Given Trump’s treatment of and standing with women, it will be interesting to see the nature of the heroine’s quest, and the monsters she encounters along the way, in Whedon’s upcoming project Batgirl.
We may not yet know what kinds of underworlds will need to be negotiated in years ahead. But American filmmakers are uniquely experienced in passing through landscapes of dread, emerging stronger and more enlightened.
One need not be a parent of a young child, as I am, to be conscious of the full-blown resurgence of the superhero in contemporary popular culture. Beyond the dizzying proliferation of fetishised merchandise to do with Marvel and DC protagonists and the frankly obscene sights of middle-aged folk squeezed into uncomplaining lycra and leotards at Comic-Con gatherings, one may sense the spectral presence of the hero, that crucial cultural figure which has beguiled humanity since the epics of Homer and the demigods of ancient mythology. Yet there is more to the hero than a fanciful tale of courage and exceptional strength.
Heroes and heroines are the most explicit and visible manifestations of our aspirations as well as our limitations, poetic accounts of our capacity for transformation within the boundaries of human imagination. What, then, does the ceaseless preoccupation with a particular heroic icon tell us? And why is it that despite all our cynicism and exhaustion, we still find resonance and meaning in the images of those, fictional or factual, who embark on quests for the betterment of their conditions with an unflinching optimism and self-confidence?
I want to address my own decision to write a novel about one of history’s most enduring heroic personae, the medieval Frenchwoman known to us as Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431), or Joan of Arc in English. I also wish to assess her perseverance as a figure of global fascination despite her historical origins in a world that is very different to ours.
Jeanne’s world was one of conflict, tragedy and turmoil. She was born during one of the most brutal phases of history’s longest war, the Hundred Years War, which pitted an embattled French Kingdom against the forces of an intrepid England and an even more dynamic and rapacious medieval feudal duchy of Burgundy. Her native village and community were directly affected by the war’s ravages, and it was perhaps in response to the miseries of war, and perhaps also due to unique personal and psychological factors, that the young peasant woman, claiming to have been instructed by divine “voices”, left her village to end “the pity in the kingdom of France”. She was, much to the astonishment of future historians, received by the French king, armed and sent to fight the English as the “chief of war” of French forces. Her unexpected victories turned the tide of the war and made Jeanne into one of the most famous and most heroic figures of her epoch.
Has it been unsophisticated of me, a contemporary writer all too aware of the unheroic realities of our age, to devote so many years to researching and writing a book on the life of a woman who may be seen as an archetypal image of female heroism? Why is it that so many other writers and artists continue to write their own novels and songs and make films and musicals about this enigmatic icon of early European history?
I’ve been deeply fascinated with the story of Jeanne d’Arc since early childhood, when I came across an image of her – a horsed knight in an excessively shining armour, with an indisputably feminine face and hairdo – at a bookshop in Tehran in the early 1980s. But fascination alone does not result in an artistic project as complex and all-consuming as writing a modern literary novel.
So it is that I must admit that the tale of the young peasant woman who ran away from her village to become a knight, does not simply interest me. I find it exhilarating. Even though I have spent more than three decades reading and thinking about her, I’m still in awe of some of the basic elements and contradictions of her story.
How could an uneducated teenage girl lead armies to victory? How could a woman as highly attuned to the material conditions of her world – the topography of the battlefields, the byzantine milieu of late-medieval French politics – also sincerely believe in the metaphysical and believe that she heard the voices of saints and angels?
And why is it that this woman, so devoted to her political cause and to her vision of a united France, chose to be burnt at the stake at the age of 19 instead of acquiescing to her judges’ directives during her infamous trials of condemnation, and not live to see to the completion of her figurative crusade?
Paradoxes and complexities
There are many more paradoxes and complexities one may discern when it comes to the life of the so-called Maid of Orléans. For me, these are not entirely resolvable, nor are they reducible to one or more possible resolutions. In her I’ve found a potent paragon of the human subject at its most radical, most truthful embodiment.
She is one of the most extreme manifestations of the singularity of humanity, and a testament to our capacity to break with what reduces us to bare life. I will therefore offer this definition of the hero/ine for our time: s/he is one who, against the obsessions of bourgeois individualism and late-capitalist identity politics, fights to eradicate all impositions of individuality and identity to reach universal selfhood. S/he becomes a champion for all of us, and in her we find that most impossible and improbable phenomenon – genuine, irrefutable hope.
In my view, Jeanne d’Arc, despite living a good 350 years before the advent of the modern revolution, is an exemplary materialisation of the figure of the revolutionary. Long before Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Guevara, Jeanne the Maid of Orléans committed herself to the cause of transforming the world from the bottom up.
She fought for justice in the direction of a universal collectivity – a very early, very nascent notion of a unified nation under the rule of one sovereign – and not in the interest of a particular identitarian or sectarian grouping.
In the medieval, pre-modern heroine, we find a pre-emptive inversion of the mantras of the “progressive”, reformist, non-revolutionary bourgeois activists of postmodernity. For Jeanne the Maid, the public was the personal, and not merely the other way around. She made the world be the change that she wanted to see in herself. She thought local and acted global.
If Jeanne the Maid is a heroine, then, she is the heroine of the rare, luminous event of revolutionary rupture. This take is one which I’ve placed at the heart of my novel, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc. The novel is not only an articulation of her radical character as I understand her; it is also a story of forbidden amorous love and intense, heretical spirituality. But central to the novel’s fictionalised account of a historical figure’s life – and my depiction of her sexuality and unique psychology – is my view of her as a woman who was transformed by her drive to transform the world in which she lived.
Other artists, ideologues and believers have had widely differing configurations of the famous Frenchwoman. For most, however, she too has been a heroine, a woman who, against the limitations and expectations situated in socio-personal contexts, fought, defeated and was martyred by formidable manifestations of those very socio-personal limits. Nevertheless, mine and my other contemporaries’ versions of Jeanne the Maid’s heroism perhaps dramatically differ in their content, if not in their basic, heroic discourse.
Unlike pop star Madonna – whose recent song, Joan of Arc, depicts the Maid as metaphor for the multi-millionaire entertainer’s own discontent with fame and disagreeable pop culture journalists – I don’t see Jeanne as a symbol of my personal maladies.
Unlike former pop star David Byrne – in whose recent musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, Jeanne is an anti-Trump (pseudo) riot grrrl enraged by misogyny and binary gendered ideals – I can’t, despite my own overt political leanings, bring myself to ascribe to the medieval heroine the ethos of a contemporary ideological project.
And unlike the great Bruno Dumont – the maverick French philosopher-filmmaker, whose own musical, Jeannette: l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc, aspires to gently mock and deconstruct the religio-ideological premise of the cult of the Maid – I have approached her life with seriousness and with fidelity to the truths of her narrative.
Whatever one may conclude from considering the trajectories taken by the heroic image of Jeanne d’Arc since her brutal death in the hands of her Anglo-Burgundian enemies in 1431, one cannot but be stricken by the sheer variety of the Maid’s reincarnations. She’s been depicted as a national heroine and a nationalist symbol (and also, to my and many a leftists’ dismay, a popular mascot by French ultra-nationalists), a rebellious heretic and a goodly saint. A feminist role model and a belligerent military leader, an innocent mystic and a tortured victim.
However one may choose to view her, there can be no denying that she is, and will continue to be, one of the most singular and significant exemplars of our troubled species. Forget Wonder Woman and Batman – Jeanne d’Arc may be our one and only true superhero.
Ali Alizadeh will speak at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival on the topic of Revolutionary Women on Fri 1 Sep at 11.30am.
It’s the shortest story in the English language. It’s really the root of all stories and, by extension, the act of being human.
Biologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists like to argue about what makes humans people. How did we progress from planting crops to build cities, go to the moon, and build smartphones?
I put my money on storytelling.
A lot of biology underpins storytelling. There’s the evolution of the tongue and the palate. The adaptation of the brain and the developing capacity for language. But humans aren’t the only creatures to communicate with sound and symbol. Bees apparently do a bit of geometry in their hive dances, and whales have dialects of calls.
Yet even these sophisticated methods of communication lack the essential element of a constructed reality, the understanding that something can be true without being real. Ask anyone who has ever read the Lord of the Rings who Frodo is, and they will be able to describe him and his adventures in some detail, and will have opinions on whether his actions were good or bad, reasonable or not. At the same time the reader aware that the story is constructed purely from imagination and not a factual accounting of anything in the ordinary world. Even animals that are known to lie such as chimps and gorillas don’t seem to construct a persistent fictional narrative.
Thus while humans may not be the only ones with at least a rudiment of language, we do seem to be the only ones to tell stories, to communicate about things that never happened and never will, to dislocate ourselves in space and time, or to picture the world from behind another person’s eyes.
To be sure, the habit of spinning yarns probably developed over an extended period of time. It required the concurrent development of unique cognitive and physiological capacities, so there was no first storyteller in the same way there was no first dog. Humans just messed around with wolves for a few dozen generations, culling the undesirable and breeding the useful, until what had been recognizably a wolf was now recognizably not a wolf without any pup in the progression being a different species than its parents.
At some point, or rather span of points, the human mind expanded into something much larger and deeper, like a fresh water river emptying into the great saline sea. The abstract space of imagination gathered unto itself the greatest share of mental resources, burning precious, hard won calories, it provided us with an inner voice, a personal narrative, explaining the world and the mind’s place in it. Our ability to invent the world rises above the expectations of experience.
Scientists from disciplines as far apart as anthropology and neuroanatomy have speculated that this internal voice may have been perceived as an external intrusion, the voices of spirits or gods.
Regardless of how the source was perceived, humans now had storytellers inside their skulls. Experiences, emotions, and reason were translated into words, and every person became the narrator, however unreliable, of his or her own life.
So why is it so important to have a narrator? What’s the big deal with narration?
Narration is everything.
When I come home at night, after a hard day’s slog, I walk into my house, sit down on my couch, and get mugged by my dogs: two small, furry, lap-seeking missiles.
If you visualized that, it has become part of your story.
But the analysis goes deeper than that. How do I know this is my house? Yes, there’s a record of the purchase in my filing cabinet, but I haven’t looked at it in years. Nor am I merely expressing instinctive territoriality. I didn’t go around with my trousers down marking out a boundary. I know it’s my house because of the story I tell myself about it. My friends and family know it’s my house because of the story I told them. By and large, nobody questions the story of my house. Nobody demands to see the paperwork proving my ownership. More broadly, other people who don’t even know me understand the backstory of our civilization, and are aware of the common trope of home ownership.
In fact, if you back up far enough, it becomes clear that society itself is a narrative, something we collectively imagined into existence. Laws, customs, mores, and borders are things only humans perceive and only by virtue of their narrative we’ve built up inside our skulls. There is nothing outside of us to supply those concepts, no force compelling us to this end.
Terry Pratchett expressed it succinctly in Hogfather, when Death says, “… take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”
We impose on ourselves by means of a narrative what it means to be good or bad, morally right or wrong, ethically acceptable or not.
We humans are the stories we tell ourselves. More to the point, we wouldn’t be fully human without them.
Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.
The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.
The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.
He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.
The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.
All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.
The many faces of Homer
The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.
We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.
Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.
The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.
The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.
Death and War
A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.
The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.
The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.
The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.
Postscripts and plagiarists
It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.
Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.
In the Roman world, the poet Virgil set out (30-19BC) to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
My own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.
So it was with the world’s first goddess of love and war, Ishtar, and her lover Tammuz. In ancient Mesopotamia – roughly corresponding to modern Iraq, parts of Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey – love was a powerful force, capable of upending earthly order and producing sharp changes in status.
From Aphrodite to Wonder Woman, we continue to be fascinated by powerful female protagonists, an interest that can be traced back to our earliest written records. Ishtar (the word comes from the Akkadian language; she was known as Inanna in Sumerian) was the first deity for which we have written evidence. She was closely related to romantic love, but also familial love, the loving bonds between communities, and sexual love.
She was also a warrior deity with a potent capacity for vengeance, as her lover would find out. These seemingly opposing personalities have raised scholarly eyebrows both ancient and modern. Ishtar is a love deity who is terrifying on the battlefield. Her beauty is the subject of love poetry, and her rage likened to a destructive storm. But in her capacity to shape destinies and fortunes, they are two sides of the same coin.
Playing with fate
The earliest poems to Ishtar were written by Enheduanna — the world’s first individually identified author. Enheduanna (circa 2300 BCE) is generally considered to have been an historical figure living in Ur, one of the world’s oldest urban centres. She was a priestess to the moon god and the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (“Sargon the Great”), the first ruler to unite northern and southern Mesopotamia and found the powerful Akkadian empire.
The sources for Enheduanna’s life and career are historical, literary and archaeological: she commissioned an alabaster relief, the Disk of Enheduanna, which is inscribed with her dedication.
In her poetry, Enheduanna reveals the diversity of Ishtar, including her superlative capacity for armed conflict and her ability to bring about abrupt changes in status and fortune. This ability was well suited to a goddess of love and war — both areas where swift reversals can take place, utterly changing the state of play.
On the battlefield, the goddess’s ability to fix fates ensured victory. In love magic, Ishtar’s power could alter romantic fortunes. In ancient love charms, her influence was invoked to win, or indeed, capture, the heart (and other body parts) of a desired lover.
Dressed for success
Ishtar is described (by herself in love poems, and by others) as a beautiful, young woman. Her lover, Tammuz, compliments her on the beauty of her eyes, a seemingly timeless form of flattery, with a literary history stretching back to around 2100 BCE. Ishtar and Tammuz are the protagonists of one of the world’s first love stories. In love poetry telling of their courtship, the two have a very affectionate relationship. But like many great love stories, their union ends tragically.
The most famous account of this myth is Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld, author unknown. This ancient narrative, surviving in Sumerian and Akkadian versions (both written in cuneiform),
was only deciphered in the 19th Century. It begins with Ishtar’s decision to visit the realm of her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld.
Ostensibly, she is visiting her sister to mourn the death of her brother-in-law, possibly the Bull of Heaven who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the other gods in the story view the move as an attempt at a hostile takeover. Ishtar was known for being extremely ambitious; in another myth she storms the heavens and stages a divine coup.
Any questions over Ishtar’s motives are settled by the description of her preparation for her journey. She carefully applies make-up and jewellery, and wraps herself in beautiful clothing. Ishtar is frequently described applying cosmetics and enhancing her appearance before undertaking battle, or before meeting a lover. Much as a male warrior may put on a breast plate before a fight, Ishtar lines her eyes with mascara. She’s the original power-dresser: her enrichment of her beauty and her choice of clothes accentuate her potency.
Next, in a humorous scene brimming with irony, the goddess instructs her faithful handmaiden, Ninshubur, on how to behave if Ishtar becomes trapped in the netherworld. First, Ninshubur must clothe herself in correct mourning attire, such as sackcloth, and create a dishevelled appearance. Then, she must go to the temples of the great gods and ask for help to rescue her mistress. Ishtar’s instructions that her handmaiden dress in appropriately sombre mourning-wear are a stark contrast to her own flashy attire.
‘No one comes back from the underworld unmarked’
But when Ereshkigal learns that Ishtar is dressed so well, she realises she has come to conquer the underworld. So she devises a plan to literally strip Ishtar of her power.
Once arriving at Ereshkigal’s home, Ishtar descends through the seven gates of the underworld. At each gate she is instructed to remove an item of clothing. When she arrives before her sister, Ishtar is naked, and Ereshkigal kills her at once.
Her death has terrible consequences, involving the cessation of all earthly sexual intimacy and fertility. So on the advice of Ishtar’s handmaiden, Ea – the god of wisdom – facilitates a plot to revive Ishtar and return her to the upper world. His plot suceeds, but there is an ancient Mesopotamian saying:
No one comes back from the underworld unmarked.
Once a space had been created in the underworld, it was thought that it couldn’t be left empty. Ishtar is instructed to ascend with a band of demons to the upper world, and find her own replacement.
In the world above, Ishtar sees Tammuz dressed regally and relaxing on a throne, apparently unaffected by her death. Enraged, she instructs the demons to take him away with them.
A goddess scorned
Ishtar’s role in her husband’s demise has earned her a reputation as being somewhat fickle. But this assessment does not capture the complexity of the goddess’s role. Ishtar is portrayed in the myth of her Descent and elsewhere as capable of intense faithfulness: rather than being fickle, her role in her husband’s death shows her vengeful nature.
Women and vengeance proved a popular combination in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, where powerful women such as Electra, Clytemnestra and Medea brought terrible consequences on those who they perceived as having wronged them. This theme has continued to fascinate audiences to the present day.
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
Before she sees her husband relaxing after her death, Ishtar first encounters her handmaiden Ninshubur, and her two sons. One son is described as the goddess’s manicurist and hairdresser, and the other is a warrior. All three are spared by the goddess due to their faithful service and their overt expressions of grief over Ishtar’s death — they are each described lying in the dust, dressed in rags.
The diligent behaviour of Ishtar’s attendants is juxtaposed against the actions of Tammuz, a damning contrast that demonstrates his lack of appropriate mourning behaviour. Loyalty is the main criteria Ishtar uses to choose who will replace her in the underworld. This hardly makes her faithless.
Ishtar’s pursuit of revenge in ancient myths is an extension of her close connection to the dispensation of justice, and the maintenance of universal order. Love and war are both forces with the potential to create chaos and confusion, and the deity associated with them needed to be able to restore order as well as to disrupt it.
Still, love in Mesopotamia could survive death. Even for Tammuz, love was salvation and protection: the faithful love of his sister, Geshtinanna, allowed for his eventual return from the underworld. Love, as they say, never dies — but in the rare cases where it might momentarily expire, it’s best to mourn appropriately.
Ishtar was one of the most popular deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon, yet in the modern day she has slipped into almost total anonymity. Ishtar’s legacy is most clearly seen through her influence on later cultural archetypes, with her image contributing to the development of the most famous love goddess of them all, Aphrodite.
Ishtar turns up in science fiction, notably as a beautiful yet self-destructive stripper in Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman: Brief Lives. Gaiman’s exceptional command of Mesopotamian myth suggests the “stripping” of Ishtar may involve a wink to the ancient narrative tradition of her Descent.
She is not directly referenced in the 1987 film that carries her name (received poorly but now something of a cult classic), although the lead female character Shirra, shows some similarities to the goddess.
In the graphic novel tradition, Aphrodite is credited with shaping the image of Wonder Woman, and Aphrodite’s own image was influenced by Ishtar. This connection may partially explain the intriguing similarities between Ishtar and the modern superhero: both figures are represented as warriors who grace the battlefield wearing bracelets and a tiara, brandishing a rope weapon, and demonstrating love, loyalty and a fierce commitment to justice.
Ishtar, like other love goddesses, has been linked to in ancient sexual and fertility rituals, although the evidence for this is up for debate, and frequently overshadows the deity’s many other fascinating qualities.
Exploring the image of the world’s first goddess provides an insight into Mesopotamian culture, and the enduring power of love through the ages. In the modern day, love is said to conquer all, and in the ancient world, Ishtar did just that.
The author’s book, Ishtar, will be published this month by Routledge.