With the recent publication of several acclaimed novels based on Greek myths, author Hilary Green wonders whether the time is right to look again at the history behind the ancient stories – and maybe for a novel based on the archaeological record.
As someone who cut her teeth on the novels of Mary Renault, I am delighted to see the resurgence of interest in Ancient Greek myths and legends. What strikes me about the current batch – Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, Madeline Millar’s Circe – is the difference of approach. Whereas Renault, in books like The King Must Die, a re-telling of the Theseus story, sought for the historical facts that might have given rise to the myth and grounded her characters in a realistic plot and setting, Barker and Millar have chosen magical realism and expect readers to accept that gods and goddesses and nymphs actually exist and have power over human lives.
Personally, I prefer Renault’s approach. She set me wondering if many of the other myths might have arisen from real historical events. I read Robert Graves‘s two books retelling them and suggesting the religious beliefs and rituals that might have been at their core, and re-read the Iliad.
People had believed for centuries that the Trojan War was just a story and Agamemnon and Achilles and Paris imaginary figures – until Heinrich Schliemann drove a trench through a hill in Turkey and discovered Troy, and then did the same in Greece and found Mycenae. His archaeological methods left a great deal to be desired, destroying the chronological sequence of his findings, but they proved one thing.
Once, long ago, a great and powerful civilization had existed which built cities with walls so strong later generations thought they had been erected by giants; which at one stage buried its noble dead in tombs like great beehives, surrounded by rich grave goods, and at others buried them in deep pits and covered the faces of their kings with masks of beaten gold. Yet, somehow, those great cities had been wiped off the face of the earth so thoroughly that for hundreds of years people thought they were only a myth.
This realisation set me wondering. How did that happen? Who were the people powerful enough to overcome the victors of Troy? As it happened, there was an ongoing excavation at Pylos, on the west coast of Greece. Pylos, according to legend, was the realm of King Nestor, who plays a large role in the Iliad. There, on a hill a little to the north of the present day town, the archaeologists, under the leadership of Professor Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati, had uncovered the remains of Nestor’s palace.
Here was a palace whose walls were frescoed with pictures of animals and hunting scenes and warriors in combat; with a central hall, or megaron, whose floor was covered in mosaics depicting octopi and sea creatures; with a throne room decorated with frescoes of a lion and a griffin, and a young man playing the lyre; with store rooms filled with jars that had once contained olive oil and wheat.
Most significantly, the top layer excavated – the most recent – showed evidence of a conflagration which had consumed everything flammable. In other words, the palace had gone down in flames and never been rebuilt. Excavations at Mycenae show that soon after this that city was attacked and partially burned. New building showed an attempt to improve the defences, but eventually the city fell, and so did all the other Mycenean cities around the Peloponnese. Only Athens, secure on its impregnable acropolis, survived.
More fascinating, from my point of view, was the discovery of hundreds of clay tablets which had been baked hard in the fire. These tablets were inscribed with a script which had only ever been seen before at Knossos on the island of Crete. There were in fact two scripts, which Arthur Evans, the discovery of the ruins of Knossos, had called Linear A and Linear B; but it was not until Michael Ventris and Edward Chadwick succeeded in breaking the Linear B code that they could be read. They were written in a very old form of Greek.
This sparked great controversy among academics. If the same tablets were discovered in Minoan Knossos and in Pylos, did this mean that the Minoans were actually Greek? Or had the Greeks conquered the Minoans and imposed their own language? Or were the Greeks actually Minoan? Arguments raged for years.
Much more interesting to me was the content of some of the tablets. Most were simply administrative records of taxes collected, or were labels for jars of olive oil or wine. But amongst them were others which were much more dramatic. “Collect all the chariots and repair any that need it”; “Tell the fleet to muster off Cape Rhion”; “Send watchers to the north coast”; there was even one requisitioning all the bronze vessels from the temples, presumably to be melted down and made into weapons. It was clear that the rulers of Pylos were expecting an attack. It was also clear that when the attack came, they could not withstand it.
So who might the attackers have been? And how was it that they were able to overcome the descendants of the victors of Troy? According to Pausanias, the Greek traveller and geographer who lived in the second century CE, it was the Dorians, who were the descendants of Herakles.
According to them, Pylos had been conquered by Herakles and given to Nestor in trust. The probable real explanation is that this was a period when populations were on the move, with nomadic tribes from the steppes pushing south into the settled lands and displacing others who came seeking new territory. What gave them the edge when it came to battle?
It is curious that Pylos, unlike Mycenae, had no defensive walls. Were they, perhaps, too complacent, relying on their reputation as warriors, to feel they needed them?
There is another factor. It is likely that the invaders had discovered the secret of smelting iron. Weapons made that way were probably inferior to the bronze swords of the Myceneans, but iron was plentiful and the discovery allowed every man in the tribe to be armed. Bronze was in short supply and only the warrior elite could wear armour and carry a sword. When the hordes of iron-wielding Dorians poured from their ships onto Pylos’s sandy beaches, the defenders were simply overwhelmed.
By the time I had got to this point in my researches I knew that here was a story that had to be told and I set to to make my first serious attempt at a novel. When it was finished I found an agent, who loved it. For over a year, he sent it out to every publisher who might be interested (there were more of them in those days) but the reply always came back: “it’s very well written, and a great story. But we can’t see a market for it in the present climate.”
Years later I showed it to Louis de Bernières, who thought it was brilliant and every bit as good as Mary Renault. I found another agent, who also loved it and also tried very hard to sell it; but the same reply came back. “There’s no market for stories like this.”
I gave a copy to Sharon Stocker, who is currently in charge of the ongoing excavations at Pylos. Her verdict? “This is a great read… As an archaeologist who’s been working at Pylos for the last 20-plus years I found the historical and topographical details to be very accurate. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction and also for classroom use.”
I wonder if the current crop of Greek myth-themed books means that things have changed?
She also writes historical fiction as Holly Green.
Chigi vase: hoplites go to war: via Wikimedia
Image of excavations at Troy from Ilios: the city and country of the Trojans by Heinrich Schliemann: Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr
‘Nestor’s Bath’, Palace of Nestor, Pylos: via Wikimedia
Fresco of hunters, Palace of Nestor, Pylos: via Wikimedia
Linear B tablet from Pylos: Sharon Mollerus via Flickr
Mausoleum, Palace of Nestor, Pylos: via Wikimedia