The true meaning of Saturnalia
Over the holiday break I received an earnest missive in which the writer urged me to 'remember the true meaning of Christmas'. This was in response to an earlier online comment that every January involves my attempting to diet away several kilograms of festive excess which my waistline picks up over this period. My correspondent gently suggested that, instead of pushing food through my face, I could better use the time to contemplate the blessings of Providence in an atmosphere of 'peace and joy'.
There's a lot to be said for this, though one might argue that peace and joy are fully compatible with mince pies and brandy cream. It does though raise the question of the 'true meaning' of Christmas. If we are talking literally of 'Christ's Mass', then point taken. However, for most people 'Christmas' is a wider celebration, which often includes distinctly pagan elements.
Also, this holiday was celebrated centuries before the first Christmas day. It marks the winter solstice, after which the days will get longer and lighter. But also, the 21st marks the official start of winter. That was when ancient farmers cast an eye over their livestock and decided which animals the farmers could afford to feed over the winter, and which animals would feed them. Even with pickling, smoking and other ancient preservative techniques there's some parts of an animal that have to be eaten immediately. Add that the autumn grape harvest is producing its first brew of wine around now, and that work has finished in the fields for the year, and you have all the ingredients for a solstice festival.
So from that perspective, while there's the religious aspect to it, this holiday is also about drinking, partying and eating yourself sick, and always has been. It's about storing memories that get you through the tougher times ahead. Consider, for example, the true meaning of February. That's from the Latin 'Februa' - purging and purification through abstinence. It's coming.
Hercules and reality
Hercules has left home. That's the main news of the month, since as I write this the book is being printed and should be on sale in a few days. It has been a lot of fun putting the book together and watching it grow from the original concept to the final product. It's the first in a planned 'Unauthorized Biographies' series, and is a further step on my part, taking me out of the realm of ancient history into the word of myth.
In fact, this is not actually that big a step. One of the things that kept surprising me about Hercules and his early labours is how solidly the locations were based in reality. There was no 'long ago in a faraway land' for the ancient Greeks. It was 'six generations ago, by that hill/lake/swamp over there' that Hercules did his mighty deeds. If you want to visit the the mountain where Hercules captured the Erymanthian Boar, all you need is a passport and a plane ticket to Greece. While you are there, it's a short road trip to the valley where Hercules slew the Nemean Lion, and you can still stop - as Hercules probably did - for a drink afterwards in the small town of Nemea which then, and now, produces some of the best red wine in the Peloponnese.
The world of myth and the world of antiquity are interlinked, and for the people of the ancient world there was not that great a distinction between them. Not only did the stories of myth inform the lives and landscape of ancient peoples, but it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. Were there centaurs in the deep forests, or fauns and satyrs? Certainly some imaginative hunters were prepared to swear that there were. And after all, have you personally seen a live kangaroo or narwhal, or do you take the existence of these creatures on trust?
The Spartans claimed Hercules as their ancestor, just as the Athenians did with Hercules' contemporary and friend Theseus. To the Greeks it made a difference from whom you were descended, just as the Romans made a big deal about having originally been ancient Trojans. In fact I would go so far as to argue that until you understand their mythology, you cannot really understand the Greeks and Romans. While writing the story of Hercules I had to put together a lot of facts I already knew but had never properly organized. Making the story into an organized whole gave the same sense of satisfaction that one gets as each bit of a jigsaw is fitted into place.
Going ... going ...
As November bears down on us, I'm reminded of how little year is left. Goodbye 2015, I hardly knew you ... . It's been a busy year, and it is going to get busier still if I want my biography of Hercules to make it to the holiday market. The good news is that the two Lucius Panderius novels are done and dusted and with the printers. They should be out within the week.
'The Gold of Tolosa' is a second edition, mainly because it is produced by a boutique publisher, and as business improves, they have upgraded their services, fired the original proofreader and found a really good cover designer. Actually, it was I who found him. Usually a writer has little say in the cover of his book, and that say is usually limited to rejecting design after design until the publisher comes up with something that is at least acceptable. 'The Servant of Aphrodite' picks up where 'Tolosa' left off, though I wrote it so that it can also work as a stand-alone book. Those readers who were wondering what happened to our hero after his abrupt departure from the first novel will now find the answers - and some new mysteries.
With the novels I'm more involved in the production process, and once I had found a good outfit (Ravastra Design Studios, via 99Designs on the internet) I was able to work with the designer and nitpick away to my heart's content. The end result looks pretty good, in my humble opinion, and as in this case the covers are heartily endorsed by the writer, feel free to judge the books by them. You'll find the designs on the homepage of this site in a few days once I've got the printer's proofs back and I'm sure everything looks as intended. Do let me know your opinion.
Now it's on to Hercules, and this shall be my main labour until the Christmas break. There's also two other books that I've been researching and drafting that go into the writing phase at the start of 2016. The sooner the better with this, as I have masses of annotated textbooks piling up, and if the cat bumps into one, a serious avalanche might result.
Books and covers
Can you judge a book by its cover? One thing that every publisher knows is that covers sell books. With so many competing products on the bookstand, unless there is a striking cover to catch a reader's eye, the book may well remain unsold, however good the contents may be.
Furthermore, to some extent you can judge a book by its cover. If the cover is a slick, professional job you can expect the same quality in the editing and the rest of the production. However, good covers and quality production cost money, and the publisher is not going to spend that money on a bad author. So yes, while I have read some diabolical books with great covers and vice versa, the cover does tell you something about the book. As Will Rogers remarked - you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
What frustrates many authors is that the cover picture is largely out of their control. Apart from groaning, 'No, no, no,' when (to give a real example) the author of a book on the Roman army is offered a cover showing Greek hoplites locked in combat, all most writers can do is keep rejecting proposed covers until something decent is presented.
With my novels, I'm working with a small local publishing house. Like the novels themselves, this is something of an experiment for me. I do like having more control and bigger royalties, but it is important to keep a grip on quality control. Therefore we agreed to re-invest the profits from the 'Gold of Tolosa' right back into the sequel. This time round we hired not one but two copy-editors, (I remain my own production editor) and picked a professional cover-designer from one of the many internet sites offering this service. While we were at it, we gave 'Tolosa' the same treatment and picked up a lot of errors that slipped through the first time.
Both books will be released (or re-released) later this month. Take a look at the cover designs, and judge for yourself.
The Cornucopia - Reality to Myth?
How might a myth have originated? I was pondering this question while doing my 'unauthorized' biography of Hercules (which you can find in the 'forthcoming productions' page on this website). A good example of myth versus reality is the Cornucopia, the famous 'Horn of Plenty'.
Where did this horn come from? The name is no clue, as it just means 'horn of plenty' (cornu='horn', copia = 'abundance'). When we trace the horn's origins, we find it originally belonged to Achelaous, God of the same river, which is the largest in Greece.
Achelaous, we discover, could manifest himself in three forms - a bull, a snake or a man. It is the bull form that interests us here, because Achelaous got into a punch-up with mighty Hercules, and transformed himself into a bull during the struggle. This was not the wisest option when fighting the man who, in a previous Labour, had tamed the Bull of Crete (best known as the Minotaur's daddy). Not only was Achelaous the Bull defeated, but he lost a horn in the struggle. The local river nymphs took this lost horn and turned it into the cornucopia.
That's the myth. Interestingly, the reality might not be that different. Consider the River Achelaous in pre-antiquity as it descends from the mountain to the plain. When swollen with autumn rains, the river charges like a bull from the mountains, directly and often destructively. In summer the river is a snake - winding, sinuous, and full of bends and coils as it flows across the plain.
What if someone decided to channel the force of the autumn river to a more direct path by cutting off some of those bends? (In fact given time, the river does this itself, creating what are called 'ox-bow lakes'.) Someone who so tamed the river would certainly have achieved a Herculean feat, and just as all witty sayings these days seem to be attributed to Churchill, all Herculean feats in pre-antiquity were eventually attributed to Heracles.
Of course, the land within the ox-bow would be well-watered, and thanks to the silt from earlier floods, very fertile. A horn of plenty in fact.
There are other examples - for example Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, allegedly slew a water dragon. This puzzled ancient Greeks who knew of no large bodies of water thereabouts. However, modern research shows that about the time Thebes was founded, someone drained an ancient lake on the site.
Many myths may be a sort of shorthand for actual events.