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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Polypoetes and the Trojan War

“You ask me why, if she did not want this war, she has not given herself up to Menelaus since,” Polypoetes said, “but perhaps the question you should ask instead is why has Menelaus not given up Helen? Why, knowing where it might lead, did he insist upon marrying her to begin with? When she had made it clear she did not want him or the future that would follow. When she went so far as to arrange her own abduction, barely more than a child at the time, to escape his claim upon her body, her beauty, her life? This war was not caused by Helen, even if she escaped Sparta with Paris of her own free will—which Helen’s own brothers denied. It was caused by Menelaus, when he would not accept her refusal. Not as a girl, or as a woman, or as his wife. He could have ended this war long before it ever started and saved us all so much pain and suffering.” 
--A Broken Horse

You all know I swore I would never write the Trojan War. I was sure I had nothing new to say and didn't want to retread the same ground that had been overtrod already before me. But then, some time after I finished writing By Helen's Hand, I remembered Polypoetes.

Alexandre Jacovleff's Trojan Horse, via Wiki Commons
Who is Polypoetes?
I've talked about him before, I'm sure. A lesser king. Unremarkable by most accounts. There is no real mythology, no real fame attached to his name beyond being named as one of Helen's suitors. We know he earned a prize at Patroclus's funeral games. He is explicitly named as one of the men inside the Trojan Horse, though we don't know what he did inside it or after he slithered out of it. And he's the only named son of Pirithous, who together with Leonteus (a grandson of Caeneus, who we also talked about recently) led their region and the Lapith people in the fighting at Troy. (There were quite a few ships of them, if I recall correctly, too.)

He is a Background King who inexplicably takes a front row seat in the clutch moment of the Trojan War, where he continues to be treated as a Background Character still.

Fam, it's weird. And weird, to me, offers opportunity.

One of the things that strikes me about Trojan War retellings on the whole is how they focus themselves so entirely on the same handful of players. The great heroes who were all about fame and glory and embodied what we consider to be the prevailing cultural drives and sentiments of the time. Might makes right. Conquer and enslave! Get that Fame and Glory! 

Even the retellings that try to offer "a new perspective" are often just showing us these same characters and stale motivations through the eyes of the women around these heroes, sometimes romanticized, sometimes in order to reveal "the reality of abuse" they suffered inside a war camp, or the ugliness of war (which the Iliad itself doesn't shy from, either.) Often, the repeated stampedes of the rest of the men to their boats when Agamemnon tests them, in the Iliad, are entirely scrubbed out of the narrative. But those moments offer a key perspective: Agamemnon and Menelaus and the rest of the hero-kings and -princes we all know and love were leading a DEEPLY UNPOPULAR war.

And there were A LOT OF PEOPLE in that camp who were desperate to go home, with or without the sack of Troy.

There is no reason to think a Background King could not have been one of them.

And now we have a new story and untrod ground. We have something DIFFERENT.

"But Amalia," I hear you say, "What about glory and fame?! Those were driving forces!!"
WHY does EVERY HERO get a CHOICE, if a long life and a death of old age at home surrounded by your family is not some kind of temptation still? If they all, ALWAYS, choose glory and fame then the choice means nothing. We have to allow for the fact that there were some people in this society who chose OTHERWISE. It's right there in the construction of the myths. 

Part of what makes those particular heroes exceptional is that they chose glory--when other people MIGHT NOT.

It isn't even going against the grain. It's not modern to look at what is presented as options inside the myths themselves and connect the dots, to take the OTHER path presented. Odysseus never wanted to go to war, but we don't act like that's a break with history. If fame and glory were all that mattered, all that drove the people of this culture EVER, then Odysseus would not have playacted his own madness in order to get out from under the oath he designed.

Do you see what I mean, now, when I say: we are making choices TODAY to create in these myths something more monstrous, more violent, more cruel when we discard the variations that present something other? 

Dozens, maybe hundreds of people have retold this story. But if they keep leaving out the part where PEOPLE REALLY DID NOT WANT TO BE THERE, half of it, and all the nuance, is lost. To suggest that everyone in the past was driven by a bloodthirsty desire for fame and glory at any cost is a profound disservice to history and our ancestors. Perhaps even more so than by allowing people inside problematic power dynamics to fall in love (as attested inside the myths themselves.)

I think we all know why as a society we focus on a mythic hero falling in love as the bigger problem, though. Why that's the thing we need to expunge from the record, above all, by pushing to make sure those relationships are more "realistically" portrayed primarily as violence and assault, in our so modern and enlightened age. We are INVESTED in the idea that these heroes never looked at women as anything but objects, never saw value in them as people beyond the child they might provide. And we've been invested in that idea for a VERY long time.

Tamer of Horses Helen of Sparta By Helen's Hand Daughter of a Thousand Years A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus
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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Aethra, Poseidon, and the Myth of Caeneus.

I am absolutely fascinated beyond all reason by Aethra's relationship to Poseidon and how that relationship influences and alters the course of her life. (If you subscribe to the Amaliad, this probably isn't news to you.)

“My Lord, how might Troezen serve you?”

“If I had come for Troezen’s service, I would have called to your father, the king,” Poseidon said, a ripple of laughter beneath his words. “This night, I have something else in mind. A bargain I would make with you alone, if you desire it.”

If I had been standing, I might have stepped back, but upon my knees, my face still held in his hand, I could only narrow my eyes and bite my tongue on a response that would give offense to a god. Because though he framed it as a choice, an offer I might decline, I was not certain he would be so generous if I denied him.
 --The Lion of Troezen

CHOICE, right??? 
How much choice does anyone have when the offer comes from a god? I blogged about this topic previously and I think it's still (maybe even more) important and YES, this question of CONSENT is so much of why I am SO INTERESTED in Aethra's story, because of how I framed her relationship to Poseidon in HELEN OF SPARTA to begin with.

The heroes always get choices. ALWAYS. They always get a decision point. They can fade into obscurity or they can find GLORY AND FAME. 

So where are the decision moments for everyone else?!

I've talked about the choices and decision points heroes get, too, before--in regard to Theseus and how harshly he's judged in contrast to other heroes who make the same choice he does for arguably more selfish reasons, but I think it's important to engage with this from other perspectives, too.

Like: WHY IS IT that only the heroes are allowed explicit decision moments? 
That's kind of rhetorical, we know that there was a limit in society/culture for anyone who wasn't a man in the periods these myths were recorded and preserved, of course, but does that mean WE SHOULD CONTINUE to impose that limit on characters and mythic figures of other genders? That we should continue to assume they were never granted them in our own retellings, now?

Let's step back from the most famous heroes we all know, whose stories are told over and over and over again--Heracles, Achilles, Theseus--and look at a different myth for a moment: the myth of Caeneus.

(CW: Rape.)

Lattanzio Gambara, Neptune and Caenis, via Wiki Commons
One of the Lapiths and favored by Poseidon, they were either propositioned or raped by Poseidon, and asked to be transformed into a man so that they would not have to bear his child or anyone else's--or according to Ovid, later, so they might never have to suffer a rape again.
A hero who became known thereafter as Caeneus.

Whether this exchange of favors was entirely voluntary really isn't clear. Did Caeneus have a choice about sleeping with Poseidon? Were they simply raped? The power dynamics at play would have made consent a tricky business no matter what, as we've previously discussed, so even best case scenario it's always going to be a little dubious on that score.* 

For a little extra historical context though, the fact that Ovid of all writers seems to push the rape narrative so hard makes me inclined to think it might be a late Roman reading, or perhaps a bias against the idea of a woman being allowed to do anything with her life other than bear children without experiencing some kind of punishment—because Rome was, whew! Deeply invested in those traditional and strictly defined gender roles. PARTICULARLY during the reign of Augustus, who, if I recall correctly, pushed a family values agenda as he consolidated power and warped the Republic into an Imperium.

But setting aside that question, this myth still offers a tantalizing glimpse of something ELSE. Of Gods making BARGAINS with those they desire. Why should Poseidon have promised anything to Caeneus if there wasn't some kind of opportunity or right to refuse? And if that was the case, Caeneus may well have set the terms of the exchange, knowing Poseidon desired them.

So either Poseidon KNEW he had wronged them in an assault and offered the boon to make up for that, (which says something interesting in itself, about the inviolate right to bodily autonomy being recognized by the gods even if they didn’t always limit themselves by that recognition), 
More than just men had bodily autonomy and the power to choose the course their lives would take. TO TAKE CONTROL OF THEIR OWN FATE.

“I would have found you,” Poseidon promised, the slough of the sea coloring his voice. As if he’d read my thoughts, on my face or from my mind. “Readied and waiting, and you’d still have been mine. But I would have had you first, and bargained only after for what I’d taken, and the fates would have laughed in spite, for you would never have forgiven it, no matter what I offered.”

It was a splash of cold seawater dousing the flame of my desire, and I stepped back, my jaw tight with rage. “Should I have?” I demanded. “Should I now, when you say I deserve better, but in the next breath, admit you’d rape me?”

“You’d have enjoyed yourself, all the same, Princess,” Poseidon said, almost laughing at my response. As if it were all a game.

Nothing would have been the same,” I snapped. “Bad enough that I trade myself for my father’s sake, for Troezen’s, but at least that is my choice to make. If you had taken it from me, I would have had nothing left. Nothing but a child I hated for the reminder it gave that my body would never be my own again.” 

--The Lion of Troezen

The Myth of Caeneus is EXTREMELY important on any number of levels right now. On maybe every level right now.
Because CHOICE matters.
Because CHOICE has ALWAYS mattered.

The choice of HOW we live, and what we give of our bodies to others. 
The choice of what body we want to live IN. 

And when we're retelling these myths about women maybe we don't, ourselves, always have to choose to tell a story of rape. MAYBE there is more in the myths, even as they were preserved, than just the THEFT of that right to choose their own fate.

Or maybe this is just a very long-winded way of saying: 
My retelling of Aethra's story in The Lion of Troezen? It's going to be something different.

*I've personally only bumped up against this myth because the Lapiths are Pirithous's people: Caeneus was at the Centauromachy, died in that battle with the centaurs, and interestingly, Polypoetes’s companion, Leonteus, appears to be his grandson. I'm sure there are people who know a lot more about it because it's an extant attestation of a trans man in ancient literature, which makes it particularly relevant to a lot of scholars right now.

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Monday, June 13, 2022

Misogyny in the Myths (and Theseus)

Seven Years Ago on Facebook, I asked this question, and I feel like it summarizes my entire BRAND as Amalia Carosella:

"How much misogyny do we read back into the myths because we're expecting it to be there, or even assuming that it is the only possible interpretation? For Classical Athens, yes, there certainly was a good bit of it -- but these stories predate Classical Athens. Is it possible the Mycenaeans with their imagery of women seated upon thrones accepting offerings, their goddesses accepting gifts, their daughters through which kingdoms were inherited, might have lived differently?"

I think this is why so many mythic retellings fall short and disappoint me--because they're not interrogating this element of the retelling, usually. They're just telling the story inside the same assumed misogynistic framework from the perspective of a woman, instead. And sure, that has its place, too. But why trap yourself in that box when there is room to give these women true agency and real power, too? When there is a whole society in which people might have lived differently, during which, if they happened at all, most of the events of these myths would have taken place.

This is also part of why the current cultural fashion of reading Theseus as nothing more than a monster bothers me--because in the source material of his mythology there is a parallel thread of a hero who loved a woman and was forced to give her up at the command of the gods, who grieved that loss, and whose grief then caused him greater grief again. If he didn't coldly abandon Ariadne, and he didn't just "forget" to change the sails, but was emotionally compromised by the sacrifice the gods demanded of him as a result of a true and very real attachment to Ariadne, he is a different man, and the framing of his future relationships shifts, too. 

(And let's not forget that when this all goes down, Theseus can't be older than 18. He was still a youth, which was why he was able to go to Crete as one of the tributes at all. I don't know about you, but when I was 18, I was emotionally compromised more than I wasn't, and I hadn't just faced down a monster to save my people and only escaped with the help of a princess who should have been my enemy, only to receive a command from my gods to leave her behind--and Theseus himself is a son of Poseidon. The command of the gods, in his world, would not have been something he imagined or a sign he misunderstood.)

There is SO MUCH ROOM in that story for us to see a hero worthy of admiration, a hero who truly values women (he was raised by a single mother, fam! He brings her with him to Athens as his ADVISOR after he becomes king!), but instead we've gutted all that EXTANT nuance to make him a vainglorious self-centered, callous jerk, who uses women for his own ends and drops them. 

That is a choice WE have made in our supposedly "enlightened" and "feminist" modern age, to make him MORE misogynistic, rather than less. How many similar choices were made by people before us along those same lines, winnowing down the story to refocus it toward patriarchy and misogyny each time? 

The threads are still there though! SOMEHOW they survived thousands of years to reach us. Maybe we should think twice before we discard them, AGAIN, entirely. 

And not just when it comes to Theseus.

Ariadne on Amazon | Ariadne on Other Retailers || Tamer on Zon | Tamer on Other Retailers

If you're looking for a different read on my favorite hero, you'll find my alternate take on Theseus and his myths in my short story retelling the events of that fateful trip to Crete, Ariadne and the Beast, as well as in my novels TAMER OF HORSES (Theseus is a secondary character, married to the Amazon Antiope--who you will ALSO love) and HELEN OF SPARTA (in which he is unquestionably our hero in the truest sense of the word!) 

Tamer of Horses Helen of Sparta By Helen's Hand Daughter of a Thousand Years A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus
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Thursday, March 10, 2022

Everyone Hates Theseus (Except Me)

I joke a lot about how I am the only person left who doesn't hate Theseus but--fam, it is WILD to me, every time I slam up against that wall again. So this is your warning: I am UNAPOLOGETICALLY biased toward Theseus, and this post is just one gut-driven facet of my defense!

Athenians-being-Delivered-to-the-Minotaur-in-the-Cretan-Labyrinth by G.Moreau
Gustave Moreau, Athenians Being Delivered to the Minotaur, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Heracles had a choice, according to his myths, and chose glory. Achilles had a choice, according to his myths, and chose glory. Theseus had a choice, according to his myths, and chose glory. But today, culturally, Theseus (and to a lesser extent Achilles) gets the most heat for making that choice (and is reduced to a self-serving gloryhound only)--even though his choices generally better the circumstances for the people he ultimately wants to serve/lead (Athens). 

Heracles's labors, in contrast, are most often framed inside his mythology as a means by which he ultimately serves himself--to redeem himself for the murder of his wife and children (or his children and nephews, or all three). He doesn't really have much of a choice about taking these labors on, because it's either DO THE THINGS, DIE, or BE FOREVER OUTCAST. And while those feats are impressive and worthy of awe, few of them are really improving things for anyone else--they're just increasing his fame. His initial choice to pursue glory despite his affliction of madness by Hera starts a war for Thebes (by another act of his madness), and then he is elevated for winning that same war he started, then he murders his family in another fit of madness and is forced to flee and seek atonement/purification through his labors. Is that really so much more sympathetic?

Theseus didn't HAVE to take the Isthmus road and clear it of the monsters who preyed upon travelers (the labors which are generally considered to be comparable to Heracles'). One could argue that he HAD to volunteer himself to go to Crete if he wanted legitimacy as a prince (and later king) of Athens, to prove himself to a people who did not know him, but it doesn't only serve him to do so--it serves as an attempt to liberate Athens from the oppression of Crete, which imho, served as a metaphor/explanation for the fall of what we today refer to as Minoan Civilization and the rise of what we consider Mycenaean/mainland Greek influence and dominance in that period. 

BUT. It's curious to me, that we have culturally chosen to elevate the hero who is most famously acting for himself (Heracles) while dismissing and undermining the heroes who took action against powerful forces seeking to subjugate or harm others. The way we have maligned Achilles also, for example, the only hero who speaks out against a leadership that is wasting the lives of its army for the ego and selfishness of one man to fight a war that should never have been fought and reduced him to someone who selfishly sulks in his tent while others die for the Achaean cause--when it was on behalf of the Achaeans dying of plague he spoke out to begin with! It's not hard to see who that narrative might serve in the modern age. 

Theseus is hated (it seems to me) primarily because he abandons or forgets Ariadne on the beach, and everything else he did (saving Athens from having to send its children to die in Crete in perpetuity, making the Isthmus road--the land connection between the Peloponnese and the rest of Greece--safe for travelers) has become meaningless in the wake of that one act, transforming the entire shape of his character in retellings of his myths--even though Ariadne ends up the consort of a god, elevated far beyond what she might have found as Theseus's wife and Queen of Athens. But how many women does Heracles take in the course of his adventures and pass off to other men or leave behind pregnant without looking back? Why don't we ever get upset on their behalf and condemn Heracles to the same degree? Why is it only Theseus who gets all that heat? 

This is not to say that there are not valid critiques of these heroes, all of them. That we should not look at Heracles and Theseus and Achilles and their actions from a modern perspective and condemn what is obviously garbage behavior. None of them really hold up well as romantic literary heroes without some massaging of their stories (though I would argue that we hold up people just as flawed and problematic and selfish and even monstrous--or more monstrous even--as heroes today in and out of literature. We have only to look at the praise heaped upon authoritarian dictators, upon billionaires making bank by strip-mining the planet and exploiting labor, at famous figures who abuse their loved ones or those they employ, to see that we are not at all immune to that same impulse in the present.) But isn't it also just as legitimate to retell their stories in ways that allow us to reconnect with these heroes of the past? To make of these figures, these stories, someone worthy of the fame they'll likely never shake? 

If they are only fiction, then maybe it makes no difference either way, except to give ourselves an aspirational ideal if we want it. But if they are and were bridges between the mortal and the divine, bringing them into the present in a way that makes them worthy (without dismissing utterly the context from which they sprang), that helps us find our own (modern) ways to the gods, feels not only important, but somehow necessary.

Leaving that aside for the moment, the most important thing I'm saying here is this: 
If we are going to forgive Heracles for being a drunken brawling brute, for literal murder and the waging of city-destroying wars, for taking lover after lover with no shortage of dubiousness on the issue of consent to say nothing of the power dynamics in play, can't we not also, maybe, just CONSIDER not ALWAYS hating on Theseus, when most of his core mythology is just him trying (not always successfully or without consequence to others) to make things better?

And if you want to read my take, you can start with HELEN OF SPARTA or TAMER OF HORSES!

Monday, January 24, 2022

Bronze Age Greece Hist Fic Reading Order

It occurred to me this past weekend that you all might benefit from a reading order reference for the books all set in the shared world of HELEN OF SPARTA, in Bronze Age Greece, so I'm here to make it happen today!

These books, so far, except for SON OF ZEUS, all take place between the conception of Theseus and Odysseus's return home to Ithaca. That... probably will change, because I'm working on a Heracles book as we speak, and I have a larger Aethra project in the works as well! Something to look forward to, I suppose, and of course I will update this list when/if those titles are completed and released.

As things stand right now, if you'd like to read these works in chronological order inside the Bronze Age, here's where to start:

1) The Lion of Troezen (Novelette--launching on Patreon, January 2023) 
More than 40 years before Helen of Sparta, this novelette retells the myth of Theseus's conception, focusing on Aethra's extremely intimate relationship with Poseidon, and how that relationship alters the course of her life.
2) Ariadne and the Beast: A Short Story 
A little more than 25 years before Helen of Sparta. I guesstimate Theseus is in his late teens during the events of this story!
3) Tamer of Horses
~20 years before Helen of Sparta. Theseus and Pirithous are both kings of their respective domains, but still learning what that means.
4) Helen of Sparta
Theseus and Pirithous are both in their 40s and Heracles is older, still. 
5) By Helen's Hand 
Picks up right where Helen of Sparta leaves off. Pirithous's son by Hippodamia, Polypoetes, is of age to take over for his father as king of the Lapiths.
5a) A Broken Horse 
This novel is written but not yet published--I'm looking for an agent!--and follows both Paris and Polypoetes as they navigate the Trojan War.
6) The Siren's Song/A Sea of Sorrow
Takes place after the close of the Trojan War, as a retelling of The Odyssey. A Sea of Sorrow is in continuity with A Song of War, History 360's retelling of The Iliad, but my revised author's cut edition of The Siren's Song novella does exist within the same world as Helen of Sparta.
7) Son of Zeus
~3000 years or so after Helen of Sparta, this novel takes place in our modern world, and Pirithous is still in his 40s after being trapped in the chair of forgetfulness for millennia.

 All these titles, with the exception of Helen of Sparta and By Helen's Hand, were written to stand alone. You don't need to have read Tamer of Horses to enjoy Son of Zeus (I wrote Son of Zeus immediately after I finished writing Helen of Sparta, actually, before I had even written Tamer of Horses or By Helen's Hand.) And you don't need to read Ariadne to enjoy Helen of Sparta, though Theseus appears in both. 

You probably DO want to have read Helen of Sparta before you pick up By Helen's Hand, though, as they were written as a duology of Helen's life leading up to the Trojan War. And if you did happen to read Tamer of Horses before or after Helen of Sparta, it might enrich the experience of both books! If I've done my job right, you shouldn't need to have read either of Helen's books before A Broken Horse, either, when/if that makes it out into the wider world. Do I think you'll enjoy it more if you have? Yeah, of course. And even more again if you've read Tamer of Horses as well, since that's the story of Polypoetes's parents. But it shouldn't be a necessity. 

Consider them all just--companion novels, that allow you to travel a little deeper into the world and the stories of the characters you've met, either in reading Helen of Sparta, or in your own exploration of the myths themselves.

Tamer of Horses, Son of Zeus, and Ariadne and the Beast are all available in wide release through the digital retailer of your choice. Tamer of Horses and Son of Zeus are also both available in paperback for your physical reading pleasure--you should be able to order them from pretty much anywhere. (Here's a link to prove it! Alas, the Son of Zeus hardcover is Amazon Exclusive.) 

Ah! and before you go, The Siren's Song is going wide this week! Look for it in your library apps and available from non-amazon vendors at this link very soon!!!