Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Brief Halloween History

Scare the Spirits of the Dead
Tomorrow night is the night that many children, and adults, have been looking forward to for a long time, to get dressed up, carve a pumpkin, eat lots of candy and party it up incognito. Halloween, as we know it, has evolved over time and like many of our current traditions, has its roots in the distant past.

There are many theories about what exact tradition or ancient festival is at the heart of our modern Halloween or, All Hallow’s Eve. Some maintain that it is a Christian festival linked to All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Historically, during these two Christian festivals, ‘soul-cakes’ would be made and handed out to the poor who would go door-to-door. This was seen as a way of praying for the souls that were then in Purgatory. Halloween is indeed a good time to pull out your copy of Dante’s Inferno. 

Another candidate thought to contribute to the origins of Halloween is the ancient Roman festival of Pomona. Unlike many Roman divinities who had their original Greek counterpart, Pomona was a uniquely Roman goddess or wood nymph who watched over and protected the fruit trees at this harvest time of year. The connection to Halloween seems a little less likely to me but it is still an interesting festival and apples do figure largely in some Halloween activities. Who hasn’t bobbed for apples?

However, when it comes to Halloween the most likely candidate for its origins still seems to be the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘saw-wen’). This was a sacred time of year for the ancient Celts of Gaul, Britain, Scotland and Ireland, a time of the death of summer. In Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man it was known as Samhain, in Wales and Cornwall, Calan Gaeaf and Kalan Gwav respectively.

Never step in a Fairy Ring!
This was the time of the harvest, of bounty but also of death, a part of the cycle of life. It was also a time of year when the door to the Otherworld was opened, the veil at its thinnest. The souls of the dead were said to revisit their former homes where people would set places for them at table. Other beings, such as fairies, roamed the land as well, some good, some mischievous and others harmful.

One way in which people, young and old, would avoid being noticed by spirits of the departed was by wearing a costume or ‘guising’ as it was called. If you had wronged a family member in the past, or even trampled a fairy ring, you were better off having a good costume! The idea of trick-or-treating in 19th century Ireland was a way that folks went door-to-door gathering food as offerings for the fairies or fuel for the purifying bonfires of Samhain. Fire and its light served as protection during the thinning of the veil and the carving of pumpkins into Jack-O-lanterns served to scare spirits and fairies away.

Even if you don’t celebrate Samhain or Halloween in some way, shape or form, it is nonetheless interesting how ancient traditions survive thousands of years, from the feeding of the dead in ancient Egypt and Greece to the Roman and Celtic festivals of the harvest. Halloween seems to be a melding of many different aspects of various cultural traditions.

Samhain Bonfire
So, tomorrow night, whether you are lighting a candle, carving a pumpkin, handing out candy or going all out with your ‘guising’, take a moment to remember that it is not just some modern day, consumer-driven tradition that you are taking part in. Remember that you are taking part in an ancient rite at a sacred time of year for many cultures and that maybe, just maybe, you are being watched from the other side of the veil between this world and the next…

Sunday, October 28, 2012

IMMORTUI - Carpathian Interlude Part I

IMMORTUI is now available as an e-book from Amazon.com in various countries!

This is the first part in a new, $.99 cent novella series that takes place in the year A.D. 8 during the reign of Emperor Augustus. 

If you are up for some dark, historical fiction for Halloween, you'll want to check this out!

Who will win in this battle between Light and Dark? It's Romans vs. Zombies on the Empire's Danube frontier. 

To coincide with the release of Immortui, I will be writing a couple of posts related to the novella such as Roman arms and armour (good for taking on the undead) and the cult of Mithras, Lord of Light. 

For now, here is a brief synopsis of the story. Enjoy!

The Legions of Emperor Augustus have returned victorious from putting down a massive revolt among the Germanic tribes of the Danube frontier. While Rome basks in its success, a new foe is gathering in the darkness of the Carpathian Mountains. When a young boy shows up at the distant fortress of Troesmis, it falls to Optio Gaius Justus Vitalis and his centurion to investigate the horrors described by the young refugee.

It is just the beginning of a struggle between the Eagles of Rome and the undead forces of an enemy that could halt the Empire’s northern advance.

To purchase IMMORTUI for .99 cents, go to Amazon.com

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kick-Starting Creativity

When people sit down to read a really good historical novel, chances are that most of them are not thinking about how much time went into creating it. Historical fiction, done well, is a very time-consuming process involving a great deal of research, travel (if you are lucky) writing and re-writing. It can take several years from start to finish.

That’s a long time to spend on a project, to focus all of your creative energy on one thing, one world, one character.

In the coming days I’ll be releasing the first part of a new novella series, IMMORTUI. I will write other posts about that soon. What I did want to talk about here was how much it can help creativity to start something new. With the novella, I had the chance to step back from the Eagles and Dragons work that has consumed me for years and focus on something new. All right, so, I’m still writing in the Roman Empire (I DO love it!) but it is a different period, involves a different location and of course, different characters. It is also a darker story than what I have written in the past, the Carpathian Interlude novella series being a bit of an exercise in darkness and horror. The change of pace to a small project, the act of completing something, has been quite therapeutic. 

Basically, it felt really bloody good to finish a project!

We like to see results, to stand back and look at the fruits of our labours. With a detailed, historical novel, it can take a long time before you feel that sense of accomplishment. That’s why I like the short term projects such as novellas or short stories – apart from being a literary exercise where you can try something new, you can attain and enjoy that feeling of completion.

As a writer, that special feeling that comes from typing ‘The End’ is needed. It signals achievement and that in turn encourages us to press on, to keep creating. I suspect that may be the case for all artists. 

I love my long term projects, but sometimes just stepping back and putting a little distance between myself and that world can grant me a new perspective that will allow me to jump right back in with a sense of rejuvenation.

So, next time you are feeling like your creativity is in a slump, that there is indeed such a thing as ‘Writer’s block’, step away from the world in which you find yourself and explore a new one. You never know what new adventure you will be going on and what inspiration will come out of it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Romans vs. Zombies

Greetings historical fantasy fans!

I'd like to announce the the imminent release of the first part of a new novella series entitled the Carpathian Interlude.

The story is called IMMORTUI and it begins in the year A.D. 8.

Here is a brief synopsis:

The Legions of Emperor Augustus have returned victorious from putting down a massive revolt among the Germanic tribes of the Danube frontier. While Rome basks in its success, a new foe is gathering in the darkness of the Carpathian Mountains. When a young boy shows up at the distant fortress of Troesmis, it falls to Optio Gaius Justus Vitalis and his centurion to investigate the horrors described by the young refugee.

It is just the beginning of a struggle between the Eagles of Rome and the undead forces of an enemy that could halt the Empire’s northern advance. 

It’s Romans vs. Zombies in this first novella of the Carpathian Interlude series. Get ready for action, mystery and blood in this clash between Light and Dark. 

Stay tuned to Writing the Past for updates on the release and availability.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sterling - Gateway to the Highlands

Stirling Castle
It has been some time since I have written a post that focuses on a particular site and so I shall now remedy that with a little bit on Sterling, Scotland. 

When I first moved to Scotland for graduate work several years ago, one of my first foray without the walls of St. Andrews was to Stirling, just a few miles to the west of Edinburgh. It was some time in early November, the hills having gone from green and heather-clad to gold and brown with a smattering of deep green. For those who like history, this is a place well worth the visit. 

Stirling has been a settlement since the Stone Age but really took on its strategic importance from the time of the first Roman incursions into the area in the late first century A.D. It was a part of the Antonine Wall, which predated Hadrian's Wall, and was Rome's first major frontier in Britannia. Indeed, Sterling was the closest crossing point of the River Forth near the mouth of the river. For the Romans, it also anchored the south western end of the Gask Ridge which consisted of a string of Roman forts that ran roughly Northeast of Sterling all the way to modern Perth which lay south of the legionary fortress of Inchtuthill. 

Wallace Monument with the Highlands beyond
For this post however, I wanted to look beyond the classical period to a couple sites that are tied more to the Medieval era. In popular culture the mention of Stirling conjures images of the movie Braveheart in which Mel Gibson's William Wallace smashes Edward I's armies until the Scot is eventually captured. Despite some historical inaccuracies in the film, it was still a fantastic retelling of the story. Always good to see an historical epic win the Oscar!

But Stirling was indeed a place of battle, as portrayed in the movie, due to its strategic importance as the gateway to the Highlands; whoever controlled Stirling's castle rock controlled the flow of traffic. If you visit, Stirling Castle should be your first destination. It is extremely well-preserved, the great hall having undergone a restoration shortly before I visited there myself. When standing upon the walls of Stirling Castle one really has a magnificent view of the entire region in all directions. One of the most stunning views is of the 19th century Wallace Monument with the backdrop of the Highlands behind. This Victorian era folly rises dramatically to pierce the sky and if you have the legs for its spiraling staircase, you will have the benefit of yet another magnificent view. If you are a Mel Gibson fan, you will have a chuckle at the statue of William Wallace bearing the actor's visage. Why not?

Robert the Bruce - Bannockburn
After you visit the castle and Wallace Monument you should definitely head to the museum and field of Bannockburn. Here you will be treated to a wonderful interpretive display where you can even try on a bit of armour before you head out onto a supposed part of the battlefield where Robert the Bruce led the Scots to victory against the English in the year 1314. There is a wonderfully dramatic equestrian statue of Robert the Bruce on the battle field which you can check out, battle axe and all. Actually, Bannockburn has been in the headlines lately due to new archaeological excavations that have been underway to determine the precise location of the fighting which may have ranged over a wide area. You can read more here.

Stirling Bridge is there as well, the place where Wallace fought one of his major battles in the first war of Scottish independence, on September 11, 1297. Though the current bridge is made of stone, the fourteenth century crossing would have been made of wood. The bridge was only wide enough to allow two horseman to cross abreast at a time and the English, on the day, made slow progress. When part of the English army had crossed, the Scots swept down from their high ground near the area of Wallace Monument and utterly crushed the English. It was a battle to send shock waves throughout both realms. 

Stirling Bridge
Modern Stirling has a current population of no more than ninety thousand people. However, this was a place where history was made, where kingdoms rose and where they fell. In one day, you can walk from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire, relive major battles of the medieval world, visit Renaissance palaces and gardens and top it off with a visit to a Victorian jail. If ever you do have the opportunity, a visit to Sterling is definitely worth the journey.    

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

E-book Invasion!

Greetings, readers and lovers of things ancient!

Just a bit of news to say that Children of Apollo, Book I of the Eagles and Dragons series, is now available in all e-book formats, including from the Apple iBookstore and from Barnes and Noble for the Nook.

More recruits will be forthcoming so check back with Writing the Past for updates.

Book II update!

Killing the Hydra - Book II of the Eagles and Dragons series is in the final stages before release and I am hoping to make it available some time in December 2012.

More news to come as the Legions march on.