Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year! Two heads are better than one…

… at least in ancient Rome.

We come to it at last, the end of the year 2012.

It is time to pass beneath the arch of December and on into January.

I suspect many people, myself included, feel a bit melancholy at this point. The holidays are all but over and back-to-work days are staring us in the face. We consumed inordinate amounts of food, wine, sweets and evening glasses of Bailey’s on ice.

We reflect on the year that is left in our wake and sigh because we must move forward whether we like it or not. Perhaps we did not accomplish all that we set out to do? Let’s face it, the crappy things tend to hold our attention more than the brilliant ones.

The secret to overcoming the New Year blues is to remember the past year whilst moving forward through the next. Like the study of history, if we forget the past, we are indeed doomed to repeat it.

Did you know that the month of January was named after the Roman god, Janus? He was the two-headed god of gates, doors and new beginnings. In ancient Rome, New Year’s Day was dedicated to this two-headed deity who kept one set of eyes on the past year while watching over the year to come.

For Romans, January was a month for looking back and looking ahead.

In Rome, when the two new consuls were to begin their term in office, they would begin on New Year’s Day. Janus would watch over beginnings such as the latter or something as small as the start of a new business venture for a butcher in the Suburan slums of the city. Janus was the first god on the list in prayers and the first to receive a portion of a sacrifice.

Janus watched over all transitions and new beginnings and that is what many of us will be doing this New Year.

Not that we should obsess about how we begin the New Year. We should just be mindful of what has come before and be open to what is approaching us in the yet-to-come.

Temple of Janus
Autun, France
It may be that we were somewhat less than what we wanted to be in recent months but that is the beauty of new beginnings. History is what it is and it is up to us to learn from it.

The future is what we are willing to make of it.

So, maybe the Romans had the right idea? Perhaps the best way to move through the gate of one year into the next is to remember, learn, and then press on with creativity and inspiration and Januvian optimism in all aspects of our lives.

It is not just New Year’s Day or January that are the beginning but each new day that dawns, that sees us awake and thinking, a new opportunity to shine.

So, with that one thought from Writing the Past, I wish you all a brilliant and fortunate future for 2013.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

History of the Holidays

Holly Wreath

Season’s Greetings everyone!

It is indeed that time of year again. The wheel of time has turned round once more and we find ourselves at the Winter Solstice. It is a time of celebration, of gathering and merry making. It is a time of giving and gratitude. For many of us, it is Christmas time.

I always feel a great connection to the past at this time of year and not only the Christian past. The traditions of this time reach much farther back than the beginnings of Christianity. Over the millennia this very time of year has been held sacred and special by many ancient cultures, celebrated in many different ways.

We have more in common with the past than we often realize.  

As I sit by the tree in my living room, the soft glow of a thousand coloured lights gracing the paper upon which I write, I feel a common thread of tradition with those that have gone before, and those that will come long after I am dust. There is a comfort in that. 

Traditions are important for all people, all cultures. And so, I wanted to look at a few of the varied traditions of this festive season from which most of us derive some form of jollity. 

In ancient Babylon the Festival of Marduk, the god whom the Babylonians believed created the world, was celebrated at this time of year. The festival involved a twelve day feast during which time gifts were given and people visited the homes of friends and family. Sound familiar?

In the Roman Empire, the big festival at this time of year, indeed one of the biggest of the entire year, was the Festival of Saturnalia which began officially on December 17. Saturn, of course, was the Roman god of agriculture, of liberation, and of time. Fitting that the Winter Solstice festival, the time when the days would begin to get longer and the winter stores of food were used, was dedicated to him. Time moves on. 

Saturnalia was a major party for Romans. There was always lots of food, drink and gift-giving. Gifts were often small and inexpensive and included things such as lucky fruits or cakes. Saturnalia was a definite carnival atmosphere, especially for slaves for, as Saturn was also a god of liberation, for one day, slave and master exchanged roles with the masters serving the servants. Everyone could let loose. Indoors, many candles were kept burning during this darkest time of year and green boughs were hung within and without people’s homes. 

Saturnalia in Ancient Rome
Many believe the Greek festival of Kronia, a harvest festival dedicated to Kronos in July and August was the major influence on Saturnalia. At the Kronia, there were feasts and banquets and games. There was also freedom from work and social equality for a day which represented a ‘Golden Age’ in which there was total harmony, no slavery or hierarchy. Slaves were released from duties during part of the Kronia just as they were during Saturnalia. 

And of course, as with any ancient festival, offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods. The religious roots of these celebrations cannot be overstated. Ancient peoples believed the gods played a role in every aspect of daily life and each was honoured. That is one reason there were so very many festivals in the Greek and Roman calendars. 

Mithras and the Tauroctony
A couple of blog posts ago, I wrote about Mithras, Lord of Light and Truth, and now we return to him. The Persian god Mithras defeated the darkness for Ahura Mazda and in mythology, his birthday was December 25th. As a god of Light, equated with Sol Invictus, the ‘unconquered sun’, it is no wonder that the Winter Solstice, the time when the sun is reborn after the darkest days, was dedicated to Mithras. Saturn also played a large role in Mithraism as this was the name given to the highest grade of initiate in the religion – Saturn was the ‘Pater’. 

Other pre-Christian gods of light, merriment, and abundance were said to have been born during December as well, including Dionysus and the Hebrew/Phoenician god, Baal. 

The Winter Solstice was a very sacred time of year and this seems to be the most common thread through time and religions. The worship of the rising Sun, the time when the eternal Sun begins to get higher in the sky, making the days longer, warming our lives. 

At Christmas, I like to hang cedar in our home, as well as boughs of holly. It is beautiful, atmospheric, warm and sweet smelling. It is also a tradition that was practiced by the ancient Celts and Druids for whom nature was so important. 

The Celts believed holly and mistletoe were sacred and that they housed good, protective spirits. At this darkest time of year, this was important. Boughs of cedar and oak and other sacred trees were hung, often in the shape of wreathes which represented the round eternal, self-renewing sun. Even today, people gather at monuments such as Stonehenge to witness the Winter Solstice sunset, branches in hand. 

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge
Moving into the Middle Ages, we come next to the Norse and Saxon traditions of northern Europe which also filtered into Britain and with which many of us are familiar today. 

Yule was originally a pagan festival associated with the god Odin and the Wild Hunt. Before Christianity spread among the Saxons, the festival involved things such as a Yule Goat, a Yule Boar, Yule singing and of course, the Yule Log which was brought home with great ceremony and intended to burn long and bright during this dark part of the year. 

The tradition of Wassailing is, I find, one of the most interesting remnants of the pagan past. It was particular to the south west of England, especially Somerset. For hundreds of years, the people of this apple-producing region would walk out with their named King and Queen of Wassail, each with a cup of the mulled cider or ale of the same name, to sing songs to the apple trees and wood spirits of the orchards. 

Yule Log
Where I used to live, just outside of Glastonbury, Somerset, we lived among some orchards. I used to walk among the trees in the early winter mornings when the sun would rise and the branches and bushes would sparkle as the light weaved its way among the frost-encrusted world. It is an image I hold dear and I can remember wondering what it would have been like to have taken part in the singing of the Wassail songs where they were meant to be sung. 

 Many of these songs remain a part of today’s Christmas carols. Here is part of one of my favourites which dates roughly to the late medieval period:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wand'ring,
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy new year,
And God send you a happy new year.

These are but a few of the long-standing traditions that we revisit year after year in some form or another, whether it is reverence for our various gods, gratitude for the birth of the Sun, or of the Son, feasting, merriment, decorating our homes and filling them with song.

This is a time of year to be enjoyed, to be grateful and charitable toward each other and our world.

So, as I raise my cup and my voice along with my family and friends this holiday season, I will also raise them along with all those who have gone before. From the ancient to the medieval and modern worlds, from the sacred forests of the Celts to the simple table at which we sit today, I remember the past and present and that, for ages, this has been a time of year when Light overcomes Dark and gods have been born. And so, the wheel of the year turns. 

To you and yours, whatever your faith or beliefs, I wish you a brilliant Winter Solstice and a Happy Christmas and New Year!


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Golden Verses for the Holidays

Pythagorean's Hymn to the Rising Sun
Fyodor Bronnikov - 1869

At this time of year, many of us take time to reflect on the past, our actions and experiences. We watch A Christmas Carol and read about Ebeneezer Scrooge and contemplate what it means to lead a good life, a charitable life, a life that will make a measure of difference to those around us.

This is not a new way of thinking, nor a strictly Christian mindset. Charles Dickens told a fantastic, inspirational tale but the morals in it are not necessarily products of his age. 

Recently, I have been doing a bit of research on Pythagoras and came across the Golden Verses. These are a series of seventy-one rules for living that were popular from antiquity and into the middle ages. It is presumed that these verses were what dictated the way of life for Pythagoras and his followers, known as Pythagoreans.

Most people today think of mathematics when they hear the name of Pythagoras, the Pythagorean Theorum having haunted many a youth in their school days, especially those not inclined to enjoy arithmetic. Myself included.

What many may not know is that Pythagoras was also a philosopher and mystic who influenced later philosophers, including Socrates and Plato.

Pythagoras of Samos
Pythagoras was from the island of Samos which he left in c.531 B.C. to settle in Croton, southern Italy (then, Magna Graecia). In Croton, he established a religious community. They believed in reincarnation and refused to offer sacrifices to the Gods, though they believed in and worshiped the Gods.

Pythagoras died in Metapontum (in modern Apulia, Italy) in c.497 B.C.  and from then, the Pythagoreans spread throughout the Greek world to spread his teachings, the Golden Verses among them.
The list of Golden Verses is quite long so I won’t list them all here. To read the entire list check out this Wikipedia link.

As I said, this time of year is a time when we reflect on our actions and experiences. It has been a sacred time of year for many cultures and religions for millennia. So, in the spirit of Christmas, Yule Tide, Saturnalia and other sacred feasts around the Winter Solstice, here are a few of Pythagoras’ Golden Verses that stand out to me.

1 – First worship the Immortal Gods, as they are established and ordained by the Law.
5 – Of all the rest of mankind, make him your friend who distinguishes himself by his virtues.
7 – Avoid as much as possible hating your friends for a slight fault.
11 – Do nothing evil, neither in the presence of others, nor privately;
12 – But above all things respect yourself.
13 – In the next place, observe justice in your actions and in your words.
18 – Support your lot with patience, it is what it may be, and never complain at it.
19 – But endeavour what you can to remedy it.
20 – And consider that fate does not send the greatest portion of these misfortunes to good men.
27 – Consult and deliberate before you act, that you may not commit foolish actions.
32 – In no way neglect the health of your body;
33 – But give it drink and meat in due measure, and also the exercise of which it needs.
35 – Accustom yourself to a way of living that is neat and decent without luxury.
40 – Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
41 – Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
42 – In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
43 – If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
44 – And if you have done any good, rejoice.
66 – And by the healing of your soul, you will deliver it from all evils, from all afflictions.
69 – Leave yourself always to be guided and directed by the understanding that comes from above, and that ought to hold the reins.

There you have it. A bit of wisdom whispered to us across the ages. Whatever we glean from Pythagoras’ words, we can be sure that a life lived with kindness, charity and honesty is indeed a good life and something to be grateful for.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Writing Alexander

Alexander the Great
I don’t often write about my book projects until they are completed. Perhaps it is a sort of superstition, a fear that if I talk about it prematurely, it won’t happen. There is so much that goes into the writing of an historical novel, let alone a trilogy. With this one, I feel as though I have taken on the Titan of all subjects: Alexander the Great.

My own expectations are high, perhaps unreasonably so, but it is a story that I have wanted to tell for a long time. I feel like Atlas with the weight of the world upon my shoulders and I won’t be shrugging it anytime soon. This is a long-term project, a campaign to the ends of the earth with an historical figure who was as big as they came. I grew up not only with the name (middle) but with the stories. Whenever I would read history, there was always some reference to Alexander, his deeds, or some later personage wanting to emulate him be it Julius Caesar or Napoleon. Generals throughout history have wanted to be Alexander, they have studied him (and still do), his genius, his persona, his propaganda, his tactics, his personal life.

Every aspect of Alexander the Great has been studied over the centuries and yet, it seems like nobody can really know him. He is one of the biggest enigmas of history and so, a dream for any historical novelist willing to take him on.

The Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii
He is the ‘marquee character’ (a term I have heard many agents and publishers use) of historical fiction. That certainly is true but which Alexander will people write about? There are so many. There is the son of a doting, sometimes scheming mother, the mortal son of an angry but brilliant general. There is the merciful man, kind towards women, but often brutal towards his enemies. There is also the genius tactician, the lover, the poet, the scholar, the megalomaniac, the Persian ‘Horned One’, and there is the god. There are other Alexanders too and the more I research and write, the more I realize that there is no possible way I can fully and satisfactorily get into that mind.

For the Alexander novels, I decided to get at Alexander through his men. The Alexander I am interested in discovering is the one that men followed to the ends of the earth, the man that inspired his troops to do the impossible at every turn. Few people in history have inspired their followers in such a way and that is the focus of my campaign to discover and get to know this larger-than-life character.

There are of course, some remnants of superstition clinging to me so I will not reveal the whole of my plot. However, I will say that the main character is named Hanbal son of Akil. He is an Egyptian horse breeder-turned-assassin who has lost everything to the Persians. He is angry, bent of vengeance and, by painful means (I know, too cryptic), he ends up in Alexander’s army.

Siwah Oasis
The first book of the trilogy begins with Alexander’s liberation of Egypt and the young king’s journey to the oracle at Siwah in the western desert. For those of you who know the history, this is a turning point for Alexander. It is also a time when Hanbal becomes acquainted with the men and women who surround the king, Ptolemy, Craterus, Nearchus and the rest of the Companions.

These are big names and I have to admit, it is utterly daunting. But it is also very exciting to weave the fiction in with history. That is why I love writing historical fiction.

The primary sources I have decided to focus on are those texts that Alexander would have been influenced by such as Homer and Xenophon. The latter’s ‘Anabasis’ was used by Alexander as a field guide when marching into Persia. Primary sources on Alexander himself are of course, Arrian and Curtius who both have their own style and focus.

As far as secondary sources, there are so many books that have been written on Alexander the Great, there is no way I could cover them all. And let’s face it, story has to come first in fiction. I have several secondary works on Alexander but the one that has proved most useful is my old copy of ‘Alexander’ by Robin Lane Fox. For those of you who are interested, this is a fantastic, accessible and interesting biography of Alexander.
Oliver Stone's Alexander - Battle of Gaugamela scene

I will post updates on the project as I go. I am almost finished the first draft of the first book which I am writing long-hand whenever I can. However, I have one major event yet to write: the Battle of Gaugamela.
Gaugamela is one of the major battles of history and it displays Alexander’s military genius to perfection. So how can I do it justice? I think many writers feel like this at times and this certainly is the time for me. For now, more research is required to attain comfort. I’ll take my time getting there and wait for the opportune moment to jump into the fray. Like Alexander, I can see the battle waiting for me on the other side of the Tigris.

The drums of war are ringing in my ears and I must write on…

Sunday, December 2, 2012

IMMORTUI – Fighting the Undead – Mithras, Lord of Light

"Hear us great Father of Light! Receive our thanks for delivering us from the dark." (Gaius Justus Vitalis; IMMORTUI)
Relief of the Tauroctony

In the ancient world most people believed in the gods, believed that the gods played a role in all aspects of life. Whether it was a major battle to decide who would rule the known world, or something as simple and mundane as keeping a person safe on a journey to the next town. People, one could say, held their gods close on a daily basis. Not just once a week or at the holidays.

For the men serving in Rome’s legions, as in IMMORTUI, there was one god to which many turned when they faced death on an almost daily basis: Mithras.

For Gaius Justus Vitalis and his men, Mithras is the light with which to combat the dark on the edge of empire. But who was this strange god who was relatively new to the Roman Pantheon?

Ahura Mazda on the ruins of Persepolis
Mithras originated as an ancient Persian god of Truth and Light whose cult was an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, which recognized Ahura Mazda as sole creator of the universe. In mythology, Mithras supported Ahura Mazda in a struggle against the evil Ahriman. This struggle of Good/Light vs. Evil/Darkness is at the heart of Mithraism.

Mithras was sent by Ahura Mazda to hunt and kill the ‘divine bull’ and from the bull’s blood, all life sprang. This is the creation myth of Zoroastrianism and the ‘Tauroctony’, the slaying of the bull, is the central image, the greatest rite, of Mithraism. When Mithras captured the bull, he is said to have taken it to a cave and there, slain it. That is why most Temples to Mithras were in caves, or dark rooms made to look like caves. Over time, because of his identification with the Light, Mithras also became identified with the sun, and altars to Sol Invictus, the ‘unconquered sun’, were associated with his worship.

The cult of Mithras seems to have come to Rome in the second half of the first century B.C., likely encountered by Roman soldiers who had been campaigning in the east with Marcus Licinius Crassus and Mark Antony against the Parthians.

Mithraeum, beneath San Clemente, Rome
Mithraism was one of the ancient ‘mystery religions’. These were religious cults in which initiates swore a solemn oath not to reveal the rites and activities involved. As a result, very little is actually known. Other mystery religions of the ancient world included the Elefsinian Mysteries (dedicated to Demeter and Persephone), the cult of Isis (the Egyptian goddess worshipped as mother/wife, patroness of nature and magic, and friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden), and the cult of Serapis (Hellenistic god intended to merge the Greek and Egyptian religions).

Mithraism was different from the other mystery religions in that it was for men only. During the Roman Empire its appeal had grown so much that Mithraea (dimly lit temple-caves or rooms) could be found outside of Roman forts across the whole of the empire. Why was this, a foreign religion, so intensely popular among the eagles of Rome?

Some believe that Mithraism may have appealed more because of its stronger promise of an afterlife and more personal relationship with the god. Understandable when one is facing death regularly. Also central to the religion were the attributes of Strength, Courage and Endurance which would have been highly valued by the soldier-adherents.

Mithras as Sol Invictus
In IMMORTUI, Gaius Justus Vitalis is referred to as the Heliodromus or ‘Sun Runner’ which was his grade or rank in the cult. In Mithraism there were in fact seven grades of initiation each associated with a deity. These were (from lowest to highest): Corax (Mercury), Nymphus (Venus), Miles (Mars), Leo (Jupiter), Perses (Luna), Heliodromus (Sol), and Pater (Saturn). Each of these grades was also associated with a particular symbol such as a torch for the Heliodromus, or a mitre for the Pater. Did the rites involve the use in some way of these symbols for each of the initiates? Perhaps. There is no way to know for certain. What is known is that these symbols appear on many of the elaborate carvings that have been found. They are full of symbolism, as is much of ancient and medieval art.

Mithraism was, however, not just a religion, it was a very close-knit society, a sort of club. Much as members of the Masonic Order, initiates of the Mithraic mysteries likely helped their brothers to advance and helped them in times of need. There would have been an understanding among them that they were not alone, that each was there for the other. It was a strong network across the empire.

Mithraic symbols and the Tauroctony
It has been hypothesized that Mithraism was the precursor of Christianity, not only because of its monotheistic nature and the battle between Light and Dark (which is universal) but also for the inclusion of such rites as baptism and a ritual meal. The date associated with the birth of Mithras is also December 25. It is a very interesting idea and may, partially, explain the widespread integration of Christianity in the later empire.

In IMMORTUI, Gaius Justus Vitalis and his men find rejuvenation in the Mithraic rites. They know that as they head into the darkness of the Carpathian mountains to face the terror of an unknown enemy, they will not be alone. The Light will guide them and, if they are to die, there is something bright beyond the black river that awaits them. For Gaius himself, faith shall be reinvigorated at the darkest of hours. What will happen to him? Will Light overcome Dark?

You will have to read IMMORTUI to find out.
Remains of the Mithraem at Carrawburgh, along Hadrian's Wall


This is the final installment looking at the world of IMMORTUI.

In 2013, keep a lookout for Carpathian Interlude – Part II in which the Empire will face one of its most dangerous foes yet.

If you are interested in picking up IMMORTUI, it is available as a $.99 cent novella from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and most other online retailers. You can also use the links on the right-hand side of this blog.

If you have already read IMMORTUI, do post a review of it on whichever site you purchased it from. Reviews are a great help to independent authors and go a long way to helping produce more work for you to enjoy.