writing and righting wrong…

Back to the fabled past — in ancient Greece with Teiresias

In watching a documentary series (The Ascent of Women, written and presented by Dr. Amanda Foreman) about the devolution of the role and treatment of women (from the establishment of the Code of Hammurabi between 1792 ʙᴄ and 1750 ʙᴄ on), I’ve had cause to revisit my ideas for a novel about which I’ve posted here and will eventually return to the front burners. As readers of this blog may recall, the saga of Teiresias (working title: A Song Heard in the Future) is intended as my restoration of that mythological figure’s story as a central character rather than, in essence, the chief of the Chorus in the accounts of others.

Apart from his oracular talents the famous seer is also remembered for the chapter in which he is transformed into a woman. Before work on Song was tabled in favor of my science fiction/thriller Astral, I had managed to reconcile some of the conflicting aspects of Teiresias’ fragmented chronicle but I hadn’t managed to do the same for the tragic treatment of women in ancient Greece with what I believe the zeitgeist views as heroic efforts to correct that state.

The documentary established the serpent as a symbol of the power of men and their obsession with honor.

Snakes1

Therefore, one explanation of the change of the identity of Teiresias is the result of his having killed the male of a pair of snakes. In Greek mythology (then religion) women were seen as a much greater contrast to men than they are perceived today; they were regarded as a separate and inferior species and category of property. Women then had to be controlled and concealed from public life. Some of this ironic travesty in the cradle of democracy persists today.

The diviner was being punished when he was made female and, although the exact transgression against honor has been lost, he must have been meant as a cautionary tale – presumably for boys on the cusp of establishing their adult status. In brief, being a man meant in part avoiding demonstrating any feminine quality. The result was strictures on the behavior of both genders with the injustice of a much more strict code imposed on women.

Snakes2

The metaphor in the myth indicates that Teiresias was able to regain his masculinity by finding another pair of snakes and then killing the female. In the story I intend Song to be it will not be a failure in maintaining honor that first changes Teiresias. Given that there would be not need for an act of absolution.

When it is restarted Song will illustrate a quite different account of the acts and fate of the counselor to kings of the city-states with more validity for today’s culture. Rather than a demonstrating Teiresias’ time spent as a woman as a punishment, I may choose presenting it as an opportunity to defy convention. Something like that should help make him – and her – as more heroic. The restoration of honor will be, in my small way, an unworthy aspect of legend and history.

The snake metaphor will still be present but with a vastly altered metaphor and meaning. The former view of caution is inappropriate to a modern version – still simmering on the back burner.

Back to a possible future — in the Dalim star system of Astral

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sententiae antiquae…

An admission of a bias in thinking due to the near-total immersion in Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy must be made. There is the concept of (Abraham) Maslow’s hammer, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Recently, the question arose in two parts of whether writers in this modern zeitgeist are consciously using elements of the philosophy of Plato (et alia) in their works of fiction. Parallels seem strongly evident; are they always intentional? Are the tropes of ancient thought strong and pervasive enough that even those who are not aware of their origins – or seeking them out – are almost destined to use them?

George Lucas is known to have based Star Wars on his study of Joseph Campbell’s work, which was in turn a summary of many others, Plato included. Similarly, Lana and Andy Wachowski may have based their Matrix (at least, in part) on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

IDEA

The reimagining of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2012) probably could not avoid using Greek myth as source material with many of the characters named after the Olympians. BSG also paralleled Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Peter Pan when Six and President Laura Roslin (among several others) presented variations of “All of this has happened before, and it all will happen again.” The verse in the Bible goes on to postulate “…and there is no new thing under the Sun.” – an idea about which I’ve previously railed.

The past week’s musing has given me a series of ideas that may cause me to adjust my perspective for A Song Heard in the Future, my novel-in-progress set 3.5 millennia ago.

Some scholars of myth believe that Teiresias was a well-known character before he was written into the tragedies of nearly all kings of Thebes, including the trilogy of Oedipus’ life. Of the dozen or so tales that include Teiresias and still exist only a small percentage of them could be said to feature him as the main character.

Hesiod is said to have written about the famous seer almost 2700 years ago but that story has been lost. At roughly the same time Homer also included Teiresias but as a shade in the Asphodel Meadows neighborhood of Hades. The intent in Song is giving Teiresias back the lost story of his life.

If an author’s themes are preordained, if there truly is nothing new, the task at hand is to make the best of it. To craft the best from it. If Song is reimagined based on last week, there’s a very good chance the book will be better. Oddly, it will also take a few steps closer to the reason for researching Teiresias in the first place. Psychic abilities have always fascinated me whether they exist or not. (And I blame Spock for it.)

A leap to someone in Ancient Greece who could see the future seems obvious but the road was not quite that direct. During my middle school years, I sometimes would construct fantasy timelines of reincarnations I might have had. My birthday was in mid-December of 1964; who died earlier that year that I might have been? And who just prior to their date of death? And so on… This fabrication of an uninterrupted line of past lives would extend as far as my knowledge of history would permit.

Something very like this led to Teiresias but I allowed the tracking and musing to move into legend and then myth, as records grew less authoritative. To my mind, the jury is still out on the details of reincarnation. I’m not sure we can be certain who we may once have been. Here the innumerable ex-Cleopatras have to be discounted.

In psychical research there is a term “anomalous cognition” that is meant to describe having knowledge without learning it. The best example of this may be the understanding some aspect of a dream without the establishing that would be required if the same plot were presented in fiction. Psychic studies go beyond that point but it means knowledge without a source or explanation. There had to be a word for the idea that we can retain knowledge from past lives, if any.

In the field of psychology (if I have this right), anomalous cognition is used to describe specific exaggerated reactions. As both science and paranormal research employ AC and with neither usage hitting the nail on the head, there had to be a more precise word. With all due respect to reverse dictionaries, they nearly always far short. Finding a new word is simple. Read more. Talk to smart people. Finding an extant but unknown word that precisely fits a specific concept is not so easy.

Just yesterday, while exploring Plato’s ideas, I discovered the word anamnesis. This is precisely what I find fascinating in anomalous cognition while not preferring the term. What you knew in a past life is something your education may serve to remind you of that past knowledge.

Plato suggested that we are reincarnated based on what we know. Ultimately, aisa (“αἶσα” meaning “destiny”) doesn’t matter in our thinking and work. It is how we think and work that remains our own.

Maybe there is nothing new under the Sun. When Song is published, however, I’ll invite you to curl up against a tree and read it in sunlight. If it surprises you – that may disprove predestination. If not, welcome back.


Exorcising the Geist from the Zeit…

Depending on who it is speaking – the world is in poor shape. The cynic in me sees too many politicians seeking to sow fear and harvest votes. Similarly, the objective of advertising could be seen as the manufacture of a sense of need or want. These are symptoms. Pointing to them in cynicism does not mean I agree about the state of things. If one isn’t careful, however, the provocation to apathy based on futility could really grow discouraging.

I refuse to believe there’s nothing that can be done and no one to do it anyway. I reject ennui. It just doesn’t have to be that way.

Some years ago I praised a good friend for being on his best behavior as a general stance. I observed that many people are rarely on comparable footing – unless called to it specifically. Part of my hope in writing A Song Heard in the Future is that it may be seen as an invitation in the present. Perhaps if there is a more frequent call to being better the reminder might result in more evidence of good, including from myself.

The meme of “Keep Calm…” and innumerable and often frivolous permutations, and despite the commercialization, stems from good advice. The British Ministry of Information produced the original and actually motivational poster in the summer of 1939, in preparation for WWII: “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Philosophically speaking, may we expect a better destiny by looking to inspire and inform? I would not presume to know the path. I can’t actually draw the actual map from here to “there”. But it seems logical that it involves beginning to turn away from doomsayers. While writing about Teiresias, I couldn’t have his prophecies be entirely of gloom and doom. Nor could his life and times be completely tragic. My motto has for a long time been, “The only raw material needed to manufacture hope is time.” The novel’s main character may prove to be of similar outlook.

I’ve long been leery of people who claim to know all of the answers. That’s not what I’m claiming here or in the novel. The first answer – the first step – is all I’ll point to right now. We have to expect better. That is one way to encourage better.

MediterraneanForgive me for not including a map to a better future. Unlike Teiresias, I cannot see it. This map represents many of his travels in my book and some of the paths followed by his three daughters.

“Five feet out that door is the real world…”

Teiresias-JanusSince I remembered Teiresias from grade school lessons about Greek and Roman mythology, I rather assumed he was a famous seer. In some recent conversations, it turns out he’s not that famous. I find the character fascinating because he stands in so many thresholds at once – between mortal and divine, sighted and blinded, male and female, and the present and possible futures. If Odysseus’ visit to Hades is included, the liminality of this world and the Underworld is added.

And for a persona so involved with seeing the future and curses of the gods, it seems odd that none of the stories about him (or her – as “Teireseia” in the novel I’m writing, A Song Heard in the Future) directly involve the Fates. It seems a glaring omission, to be honest.

Chorus: Who then is the helmsman of Ananke (Necessity)?

Prometheus: The three-shaped Fates and mindful Erinyes (Furies).

Chorus: Can it be that Zeus has less power than they do?

Prometheus: Yes, in that even he cannot escape what is foretold.

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Writing is not just telling a story. The act of crafting a novel is a process of making decisions. Two of the largest choices, particularly when it involves research, are “Do I include this and, if so, how?” along with “What does this mean in context of the book I want to present?”

In showing the journeys made by Teiresias, there’s a journey for me. I think that may be part of my renewed fascination for the seer and all of his thresholds. In a recent conversation I said, “Each person lives only one day at a time.”

Within the talk it was meant as a reference to how much one person can do in 24 hours and within reason. It isn’t fair to measure one person by one day’s work and another by that of a decade. But in this post it means that each day can be a journey – even when it is a slice of the experience of someone who can see the future.

Janus was the Roman god of Start and Change. He was also the deity of doorways. It does not seem that there was a Greek equivalent. I am beginning to wonder if it shouldn’t have been Teiresias.

Tracing a Path…

Researching Greek mythology has worked better for me having adopted the view that the entire record is of a “shared fiction universe”. The best known stories from Pandora to Aeneas – and everyone in between – exist as amalgamations of many ancient tellings. Not every detail is identical when comparisons are made. There are certain contradictions, given multiple accounts, that are impossible to reconcile.

Argonaut-map-trim
The best example may be what happens when trying to establish the route of the Argonauts and duration of their travels. No fewer than five chroniclers of Jason’s journey draw widely different lines on the map between Colchis and Iolcus. If the trip was ever made, there can only have been one return trip. At least four maps are wrong.

Pindar and Hecataeus can’t be right because the world isn’t actually shaped as they thought it was. (One cannot sail from the Caspian Sea around the Arabian Peninsula to the source of the Nile.) The route chosen by Timaeus could be right but the surviving heroes would have taken years to return, not mere months. There is quite a bit of portaging involved in the path Apollonius of Rhodes prefers – including over the Alps. Helping drag a penteconter over a mountain pass is low on my to do list.

How a tale is told and what choices the author makes depend on intent. But they also reveal assumptions by the author and the zeitgeist in which he or she writes. When the world was small and known, exploration was not a virtue and therefore wasn’t an activity heroes got up to.

Henriette Mertz postulated that the Argonauts’ adventures took place largely in the Americas and suggests a Western Civilization emphasis. She moves Colchis from the Southern Caucasus to western Bolivia, South America, making it a metaphor of Tiwanaku.

In A Song Heard in the Future, two of the major characters about whom I’m writing do become Argonauts. One is a daughter of Teiresias and the other is a man who plays a very important – if symbolic – role toward the end of the Heroic Age.

I cannot say I’m completely aware of what may be my own biases. Nor would I be able to assess to what extent I think in terms of the zeitgeist. I’m as eager to find out as I hope future readers may be. The exploration of self may unavoidably be part of writing any novel (whether I draw a map or not). I hope that can mean writing a book is an invitation.

Look both ways…

seer-book

In preparing to write a novel about more than a few characters who can see the future, it’s been essential to read about the past.

The Seer in Ancient Greece by Michael Attyah Flower, University of California Press, 2009

Michael Attyah Flower has presented a very thorough description of a predominantly obsolete profession – that of seer. Using a wide range of sources from the period of Classical Greece, Mr. Flower weaves a remarkably complete tapestry of the career of those who told the future. There are, as one might suppose, a number of Greek terms throughout the book but the author keeps them clear for the reader.

The details of the craft of the seer, the expectations of potential clients, and the societal climate in which the seer sought employment are all provided in a chiefly coherent manner. A later chapter describes the seer’s role in warfare. The author does not neglect the women who chose this profession, either.

The amount of research that went into this book is obvious and respectable. Where there is scant data, Mr. Flower is honest about speculation. He did not permit the work to wander into hypothesis without at least one historical source to serve as a foundation.

This is not a book about the seers of mythology, such as Teiresias or Melampus, although they are mentioned to make several points about seers in general. The author even takes the time to differentiate between seers and comparable professions, such as priest and magician. After reading The Seer in Ancient Greece, it is easy to imagine how they must have lived and conducted their business. A list of fees and charges is not included nor are precise rituals described.

The timeline chosen the research is before the era I’ve chosen for A Song Heard in the Future. Nonetheless, it is going to prove to be a strong resource for the novel.