Author Name: Judith Starkston
- *Please tell us about your publications.
I’m the author of three books of historical fantasy based on the Bronze Age Hittites—an empire of the ancient Near East nearly buried by the sands of time. My books take “a quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, and give full expression to the magical religious beliefs of these historical people. My first book, Hand of Fire, is set in the Trojan War and told from a woman’s viewpoint, Briseis, Achilles’ captive. Currently, I’m writing a historical fantasy series based on a Hittite queen. The first book in that series Priestess of Ishana is available FREE Oct 2-6. The second book, Sorcery in Alpara, launches Oct 14.
- What first prompted you to publish your work?
When I was researching my first book and figuring out the Trojans, I made a startling side discovery—a queen I’d never heard of who ruled for decades over an empire I’d barely heard of, despite my training and degrees as a classicist. It was the Hittite empire, of which, it turns out, Troy was a part. The queen was Puduhepa (whom I call Tesha in my fiction–the Hittite word for “dream” because she had visionary dreams). I’m particularly interested in the theme of women as leaders, so I was hooked. The Hittite empire could be called the forgotten empire, but fortunately, recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets have filled in parts of the lost history. We now have many Hittite letters, prayers, judicial decrees, treaties, religious rites and a variety of other documents, but overall our knowledge still has huge gaps in it. I use shifted names in my series, such as Hitolia for the Hittite empire, to cue my readers to how much I have to fill in imaginatively from those fragmentary records. It also gives fair warning to the magic that I give free rein to, the rules of which derive from Hittite practices, but I do let the story go where a good story should and that means a lot of fantasy. It was that juicy primary source material, an extraordinary female ruler, and an intriguing ancient world that prompted me to write Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara.
- Are you a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter’?
I outline my novels in a couple different ways before I start writing, but those outlines are subject to change whenever the story and characters take me into new realms I hadn’t imagined at the start.
I use a couple approaches to outlining and organizing my manuscripts. One is very character/theme/pacing driven, Libbie Hawker’s book Take Your Pants Off. The other, very plot and pacing driven, is a storyboarding technique that means I’ve got each of my books laid out on a three-sided board like we used for our school science projects. It’s explained in Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. You’ll notice in both the word “pacing.” I found as I learned the craft that pacing was both the hardest part to get right and the most essential. If readers aren’t compulsively drawn through my story, it doesn’t matter how beautiful my writing is and all the rest (though I work hard to get all that nailed). A good story is hard to put down—that’s something we all intuitively know. The corollary is that if a story is hard to get through, it isn’t very good!
- What piece of advice do you wish you’d had when you started your publishing journey?
Write at least a little bit every day and give yourself permission to write “bad words.” What do I mean by that? Just write and don’t worry whether it’s crap or not. Later you can go back and edit or trash if need be. I find that it is often the days when I think I’m writing the worst that I discover on later read, I’ve written some of my best. And you can only fix words that are actually on the page.
- If you could have dinner with any literary character who would you choose, and what would you eat.
I’ve never gotten over my fascination with Achilles in the Iliad. He’s maybe legendary rather than literary, but I’d like to sit down and listen to him (probably admire his physique also…). He’d probably want lamb roasted on spits spiced with garlic and cumin, and I love that also, so I’ll go with that. Some fresh flatbread right off the hot stones to go along with it!
- What are your views on authors offering free books? Do you believe, as some do, that it demeans an author and his or her work?
I’m using this technique—offering free my first book in the series, Priestess of Ishana, from Oct 2-6. I’m doing it right before the second book comes out, so I’ll see buy through and get paid that way. I think it’s a viable marketing strategy. I don’t think reaching new readers is demeaning. It’s what you do as an author, and putting books into people’s hands seems like a good thing overall. If I was expected to give away books for free all the time, that would be silly. But accessing a lot of new readers I wouldn’t have any other way? That sounds smart to me. So do download a copy of Priestess of Ishana, and then if you really enjoy it, buy Sorcery in Alpara.
- What are your views on authors commenting on reviews?
I spread the word when I get a particularly strong review, especially from someone I really respect. When someone writes a bad review, I see no reason to react one way or the other, certainly not comment on it. I let my fiction, my author notes, all the background material on my website speak for itself when someone has a wrongheaded idea in a review. Reality has a way of coming through over time, so I don’t sweat it. If someone points out a perceptive way to improve in a review, I go to work in my next book and make sure I fix that. I’m happy to learn from all sources.
- How much research do you do for your work? What’s the wildest subject you’ve looked at?
I have gone deep into the research, both the book/reading part (years of that) and the travel. I’ve gone to the archaeological sites, landscapes, and museum collections in Turkey that are the source material for my world-building. I contact the dig directors and museum curators so that I can talk with them and learn first-hand from the people who really know. I spent a whole day at the site that we think was Tesha’s hometown that I call Lawaza, but was called Lawazantiya by the Hittites. It’s the archaeological site of Tatarli near the city of Adana in Turkey. The key reason they think it’s her hometown is that the dig mound (with Bronze Age ruins of the right kind) is surrounded by seven springs. The Hittite records from the capital of the empire describe this town as having seven springs. The dig director took me to each of the springs–one of them appears in a key scene in Priestess of Ishana and I could never have gotten the atmospherics of that scene right if I hadn’t been there. One of the wildest subjects I’ve run across is the Hittite magical rite to remove a curse that I use in Priestess of Ishana. It involves chickpeas. Who knew that the way to get the demons out was via garbanzo beans? The Hittites were obsessed with curses and they believed sorcerers caused all kinds of evil with them. If you had to remove a curse from someone, you baked a loaf of bread with chickpea paste in the middle (basically humus) so that when you touched the bread to the cursed body while saying the right spell, the paste would absorb the pollution. I couldn’t make up this stuff in a million years, but the Hittite culture hands it to me. I just have to write it into compelling page-turners.
- If you could be any fantasy/mythical or legendary person/creature what would you be and why?
I’m having a lot of fun writing griffins into my series, so I’ll choose that mythical creature to be. It turned out, much to my surprise as I wrote, that griffins, or at least the ones in my books, have a very dry sense of humor. And they are wickedly good warriors and can soar into the heavens, and yet they have a big soft spot for their cubs who are allowed to climb all over the grownups, so I suspect hanging out as a griffin for a while could be very entertaining.
- What is your writing space like?
I’m very lucky and have a big window in front of my workspace that looks out on my garden. I write on a lovely inlaid wooden writing table with a comfortable armchair. So I’m all set to keep my butt in that seat for a good stretch every day.
- Is there a message in your books?
My fictional Tesha, based on the historic Queen Puduhepa, provides a worthy model for leadership—particularly the value of female leaders, which we’ve been thinking about lately, so this seems timely. She certainly wasn’t perfect, and some of her actions are hotly debated among historians as possibly self-serving or politically motivated rather than ethically driven. She gave me nuanced material to work into my hero’s character. But, despite that human complexity, or perhaps because of it, she had brilliant skills as queen in many areas: diplomatic, judicial, religious and familial. Most famously, she corralled Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt into a lasting peace treaty. The surviving letters to Ramses reveal a subtle diplomat with a tough but gracious core that made her able to stand up to the arrogant Pharaoh without giving offense. She also took judicial positions that went against her own citizens when the truth wasn’t on their side. Fair justice wasn’t something she was willing to toss overboard when it was politically inconvenient. Her equal partnership with her husband was a much-admired model even in the patriarchal world of the ancient Near East. I’m enjoying working in these themes from a real woman into my historical fantasy series, one book at a time.
- How important is writing to you?
I love the long hours at my desk spent lost in the world that I write and in the company of my characters. I enjoy it every day. It’s my fulltime occupation.
Newsletter sign up (for a free short story and book deals): https://www.judithstarkston.com/sign-up-for-my-author-newsletter-for-books-news-special-offers-and-freebies/
Priestess of Ishana https://amzn.to/2DXpdXt
Sorcery in Alpara https://amzn.to/319vuIj
Hand of Fire https://amzn.to/2KOb6a0
Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites. Early on she went so far as to get degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell. She loves myths and telling stories. This has gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write historical fantasy set in the Bronze Age. Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award.
This #HistoricalFiction, it might be argued, could be controversial. It’s the story of the wife of Pontius Pilate – the man religious history has damned with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is Claudia’s story – starting with the person barely out of girlhood with big and dangerous ideas, and a terrible foresight.
The author crafts this well enough, with sympathy, despair at what will come, but from an intriguing perspective. What did Pilate think? Did he have a choice? Of course, we don’t know that – but that’s what historical fiction is about – it’s the might have been.
The chapters jump between Claudia, setting out to marry a man she has never met, and Pilate’s promotion to Governor of Judea – and the inherent troubles therein.
Although the jumping between points of view is a little confusing at times the story is very engaging.
Only fools fall in love, and hell is filled with fools. Our damned lovers include: Christopher Marlowe and Will Shakespeare, Napoleon and Wellington, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hatshepsut and Senenmut, Abelard and Heloise, Helen and Penelope, Saint Teresa and Satan’s Reaper, Madge Kendall and the Elephant Man, and more . . . — all of whom pay a hellish price for indulging their affections.
Shakespeare said “To be wise and love exceeds man’s might,” and in Lovers in Hell, the damned in hell exceed all bounds as they search for their true loves, punish the perfidious, and avoid getting caught up in Satan’s snares. In ten stories of misery and madness, hell’s most loveless seek to slake the thirst that can never be quenched, and find true love amid the lies of ages.
Featuring stories by:
Janet and Chris Morris
Michael E. Dellert
Michael H. Hanson
A. L. Butcher
Andrew P. Weston
HELL WEEK 2018…. Coming soon…. so get your pitchforks ready.
You have been warned.
This is another interesting free course run via Coursera, created by The Wesleyan University and presented by Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. It’s a good starting point with which to learn about some of the battles, significant persons, and events of Ancient Greece.
Over 7 weeks the course covers:
Prehistory to Homer
The Archaic Age (ca. 800-500 BCE)
Two City-States: Sparta and Athens
Democracy. The Persian Wars
“The Great 50 Years” (ca. 480-431 BCE)
The Peloponnesian War I
The End of the War, the End of the Century
We learn about Homer, Socrates, Thucydides, Critias, Herotodus, and the major players in the array of battles, laws, political systems and arrangements and shenanigans which went on during this important period in European history. There is one video on women in Greek society but other than fairly brief mentions women and the lower classes aren’t discussed in detail (to be fair this IS a short course and there is not a lot of info remaining about the common man and woman in Greek society).
The course comprises of informative videos and reading. I have to confess I didn’t do much of the reading (partly as I’ve done some in the past and partly because I didn’t have a lot of time) and I would have got more out of this had I done so – my bad.
I’d recommend doing at least some of the readings, and watching all the videos. There are quizzes to be completed at the end of each section – and these count as the grading for the course so MUST be completed.
The tutor was very engaging, easy to listen to and obviously is very well informed on this historical era. There were a couple of issues with sound quality – but I have found this an issue with Coursera before (but to be fair the course is free).
Coursera is a good way to pick up cheap or free ‘taster’ courses (One can pay for the course and gain a certificate – otherwise you can an acknowledgement of completion but no actual certificate. The cost of this is not much.)
Overall I enjoyed this and would certainly look out for more courses from this university and tutor.
https://amzn.to/2pPSKtm – AMAZON UK
https://amzn.to/2GkYHWw – AMAZON
Lawyers in Hell forms part of the Heroes in Hell shared world. As usual with these anthologies, there is an eclectic mix of stories. Some I enjoyed more than others, but there was nothing I didn’t like. From Guy Fawkes trying to sue Satan (Fawkes believes he is a martyr and thus should be in heaven) to Leonides dealing with a recalcitrant Alexander, to ex-presidents, to succubi causing mayhem and Erra and his Sibbiti (an ongoing theme) there is mischief afoot in Hell.
It shows the talent of these authors that although the stories are clearly written by different people, feature a bewildering array of historical characters in all sorts of weird situations they flow smoothly in a brilliantly crafted world.
Humanity will be humanity – even in hell. And thus individuals wish to sue other individuals and the lawyers who worth and the Hall of Injustice are kept busy. Of course, being hell, nothing is simple, nothing works properly and there’s always a hidden agenda. All the characters have some form of penance to pay – be it taking cases they cannot win, representing demons, facing monsters, dealing with the unpredictable technology, and generally trying to survive Hell. The stories are sad (as I said humanity seeks to be humanity with its many faults), darkly humorous, clever, weird and enticing.
Author name: Sherry D. Ramsey
*Please tell us about your publications. I enjoy writing both short fiction and novels. I have a series of science fiction novels published by Tyche Books (Alberta, Canada) (The Nearspace series: One’s Aspect to the Sun, Dark Beneath the Moon, and Beyond the Sentinel Stars); a middle-grade fantasy from Dreaming Robot Press (New Mexico, USA) (The Seventh Crow); and a self-published urban fantasy/mystery (The Murder Prophet). I also have two collections of previously-published short stories, To Unimagined Shores and The Cache and Other Stories.
What have you found the most challenging part of the process? I feel somewhat frustrated that I don’t write faster—in the current publishing climate there’s a certain pressure to publish consistently and often for greatest success. I see many authors publishing three or more books a year, and I just don’t seem to work at those speeds. Last year I had a short story collection, a new novel, and a couple of short stories come out, and that seems like a lot for me. I know it’s usually not a good idea to compare oneself to other writers, but I would like to be able to work a little faster. I’m not a perfectionist—but I am a bit of a procrastinator. Maybe I need to work on that!
Are you a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter’? I’ve always been a pantser, for sure. A long time ago I tried outlining a novel, and then found that I was no longer interested in writing it; the fun of “discovery” seemed to have disappeared during the outlining process. Lately, though, I’ve begun to find a middle ground—I’ve discovered that minimal outlining actually helps my writing process and reduces the chance that I’ll run out of steam/ideas on a project. So now I guess I’m a hybrid between pantser and plotter. Plantser?
If you could have dinner with any literary character who would you choose, and what would you eat. I think I’d have to choose Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe to have dinner with. No doubt he’d wax forth on some fascinating topic for dinner conversation, and of course the meal would be superbly prepared by his chef, Fritz. We might have corn, “roasted in the husk in the hottest possible oven for forty minutes, shucked at the table, and buttered and salted,” since Wolfe considered that to be ambrosia. It’s probably cheating, but I expect Archie Goodwin would also be there for dinner, so I’d get two characters for the price of one. If I were particularly fortunate, Wolfe would show me his orchid collection after dinner. The perfect literary character interaction!
What are your views on authors offering free books? Do you believe, as some do, that it demeans an author and his or her work? I think that offering some work for free can be a valuable promotional tool for writers who would like to find new readers. Many readers are wary of taking a chance on a new-to-them writer, and most of us watch how we spend our hard-earned dollars these days. It’s also a way to introduce a new reader to a series or character. I don’t think it’s demeaning to authors or their work when it’s done sensibly, professionally, and as a promotional choice.
Sort these into order of importance: Good plot, Great characters, Awesome world-building, Technically perfect. For me, the characters come first. Sometimes a character arrives on the doorstep of your mind with a suitcase in hand and not even a name, but they have a story they want you to tell. You can’t turn them away. I think most of the time, we keep reading a book or put it down forever because of the characters. If you love the characters, you can forgive a lot of other sins in a book. Plot comes next—the smooth, flowing experience of reading a well-plotted book is such a rewarding experience for a reader, I think we should always strive to create that as writers. World-building is important, of course, and sometimes the world can even be like another character in a book—but the most fabulously-imagined world can’t carry a book if the characters and story are not strong. Technical perfection—I’m not convinced it exists. I do some work as an editor, with two co-editors, and even working as a team I don’t think we’ve ever ended up with a technically perfect work. It’s important to create the best work you can, but striving for perfection might mean no-one else ever gets to read it. I think we have to learn when our work is “close enough” to perfection, and let it go.
How much research do you do for your work? What’s the wildest subject you’ve looked at? I write many flavours of both science fiction and fantasy, so I’ve done research on topics from medical nanomachines to particle accelerators to how magic might be fueled by different minerals. One of the most interesting things I researched lately was the question of how two machines/computers, each created by a different alien species, might learn to communicate. I learned a lot of fascinating things about both computing and language acquisition!
Which authors have influenced you the most? I read a LOT, and over the years I think there have been many authors who’ve influenced me in my writing. I love to write humour and humorously convoluted situations, so the influences of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Connie Willis are there. I love science and the future, so Nancy Kress, Jack McDevitt, and classics like Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl have left their mark. And I love to work with the wide reaches of imagination in fantasy, so Dave Duncan, Maggie Stiefvater, and Elizabeth Bear have made an impression. So many more I could name!
What is your writing space like? I’m very fortunate to have a small but wonderful office at home. I have a normal sitting desk and also a treadmill desk, where I try to spend at least part of each writing day. Too much sitting is not good for me! The walls of my office are covered with overflowing bookshelves and inspiring artwork, and I have a large southwest-facing window that gets lots of light and houses many plants. There’s one extra chair so a friend or family member can come in and visit. This sounds idyllic, but now add in lots of notes, maps, knickknacks, filing cabinets, binders—and some folks might find it too cluttery! For me, it’s inspiring and comfortable, though, and although I might sometimes write elsewhere in the house with a laptop, I always come back to my office as my main creative space.
Tell us about your latest piece? Coincidentally, one of the projects I’m currently working on is another Olympia Investigations story, featuring Acacia Sheridan, the main character from “The Goddess Problem.” Acacia is a private detective with a special gift – she can communicate and interact with supernatural creatures of all sorts. Her clientele includes ghosts, demons, fae, and many more denizens of the otherworld…which makes for some interesting cases. In the new story, her client—who is also a suspect in a series of murders—is a vampire, so I’m having some fun playing with traditional vampire-story tropes.
What’s your next writing adventure? I have another Nearspace book underway, and several other partially-finished projects trying to get my attention. I’ve also seen a few interesting calls for short story submissions in the past few weeks, so ideas are percolating for those as well. I may write slowly, but there’s never a lack of things to write!
What is the last book you’ve read? I just finished listening to the audiobook of Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick. Although of course I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was struck by how much deeper the book is than the movie (although I’ve always loved the movie) and what themes and ideas did not make it into the movie, despite being central to the book. I never expect movie adaptations to be particularly true to a book—the demands of the media are completely different, after all—but the book gave me a lot to think about in terms of choices made at the time concerning what to include and what to leave out. How do we decide what’s vital to a story? Can you separate out certain themes and still have a complete tale? Lots to ponder.
Sherry D. Ramsey is a speculative fiction writer, editor, publisher, creativity addict and self-confessed Internet geek. When she’s not writing, she makes jewelry, gardens, hones her creative procrastination skills on social media, and consumes far more coffee and chocolate than is likely good for her.
Her books include the Nearspace series from Tyche Books, One’s Aspect to the Sun, Dark Beneath the Moon, and Beyond the Sentinel Stars; the middle grade fantasy The Seventh Crow; The Murder Prophet; and two collections of short stories. With her partners at Third Person Press, she has co-edited six anthologies of regional short fiction and a novel. A member of the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia Writer’s Council, Sherry is also a past Vice-President and Secretary-Treasurer of SF Canada.
Sherry lives in Nova Scotia with her husband, children, and dogs. You can visit her online at www.sherrydramsey.com, find her on Facebook, and keep up with her much more pithy musings and visual life on Twitter and Instagram @sdramsey.
Sherry’s book The Goddess Problem features in Immortals
Universal Link https://books2read.com/Immortalsbundle
Bundle Rabbit https://bundlerabbit.com/b/immortals
I love this book. Exceptionally well written, with accounts of a remarkable and interesting man, and a little known period of history. If you like ancient history this is a must-read.
This post previously appeared as part of https://jenniferloiske.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/author-interview-meet-a-l-butcher/ which featured last year to promote Heroika: Dragon Eaters
Dragons – why do they captivate us?
Dragons have been part of mythology for centuries. The Welsh, for example, have Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon as the national emblem – a dragon passant (standing with one foot raised) on a green and white background. Although the currently flag is relatively new the mythology of the Welsh Dragon is at least fifteen hundred years old, possible even Roman. The kings of Aberffraw used it to symbolise their power and authority after the Romans left. The first recorded use of it to Symbolise Wales is from the 9th Century (Nennius – Historica Brittonum). Geoffrey of Monmouth linked the dragon to the Arthurian legends – after all King Arthur’s father was Uther PENDRAGON, and so again the dragon is intrinsically interwoven with British myth.
Henry VII (Henry Tudor) had a dragon on his coat of arms – the Welsh heritage again coming to the fore and during the reign of his son, the might Henry VIII the red dragon standard was often flown on Royal Navy ships.
In the Mabinogion the Red Dragon fights the invading White Dragon and his pained shrieks cause women to miscarry, animals to perish and crops to fail. The king of Britain (King Lludd) visits his French brother Llefelys and, on his advice, digs a huge pit, filled with mead and covered with a cloth. The Dragons cease their battle, drink the mead and fall asleep, still covered in the cloth. They are then trapped beneath Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. Centuries later King Vortigern attempts to build a fort there, and every night the castle foundations are demolished. Wise men tell him to find a boy with no father and sacrifice him – to appease whatever is causing the problem. That boy is Merlin, who will become the Great Wizard, and he dismisses this advice and tells the king about the dragons. The two dragons are freed and continue their fight – the Red Dragon symbolising the people of Vortigern and the White Dragon the Saxons. The latter is defeated – thus these are the Saxons who failed to subdue the people of Vertigorn who would become the Welsh.
Dragons symbolise great power and strength. They are, perhaps the most legendary of beasts and to defeat one (or field one) was only the territory of the greatest of heroes. Chinese, Indian, Malayan, Japanese, Khymer, Phillipino, Korea, Catalan, French, Greek, British, Germanic, Scandanavian, Slavic, Romanian, Albanian, Pre-Islamic, Tartar, Judeo-Christian and Turkish mythology all speak of dragons, wyverns, wyrms or basilisks. The ancient Egyptians worshipped a crocodile named the Messah – which later became a dragon, and the sign of Kingship. Think about it – the Nile Crocodile is a supreme predator, a feared monster and little can best it. What better ideal for kingship – powerful, terrifying and unbeatable.
Then of course we have the symbolism of dragons as the ultimate evil – the devil or other wicked beast destroying the good Christians and being vanquished by a Christian Hero. On the other hand Chinese Dragons are seen as lucky.
Dragon literature is diverse – Christian mythology (as mentioned), Norse, Celtic, Beowulf, St George, to name but a few. And more modern writers such as Tolkien, Cindy Lyle, George RR Martin, Cressida Cowell, JD Hallowell, David Gaider and many, many more feature a dragon of one sort or another. Here’s a challenge – type Dragon in the search engine of Good Reads – I tried and there were over 100 pages of books with ‘Dragon’ in the title and that’s just the beginning. Movies, video games, table-top games and toys feature the most legendary of monsters. Dragons are all around us – some kind and benevolent and some much less so. We are culturally bound with Draco and his kind.
St George and the Dragon
This part originally posted here:
I am British, and Britain has a very rich heritage of myth and folklore; we have dragons, we have knights who slay them, we have mythical kings and magic swords, we have monsters inhabiting Scottish Lochs, we have fairies, pixies and ghosts aplenty, we have heroes and antiheroes. Yet many people scoff at fantasy, thinking it is simply elves, dwarves or similar; a genre read by geeks and nerds. Well yes, in part it is, but fantasy and folklore have been with us from the dawn of time in one form or another.
Let’s look at one of the best known English myths – that of St George and the Dragon.
Most accounts claim St George was born in Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey, of Darian origin. He enlisted in the Roman army, and quickly achieved a reputation for his physical strength bravery, loyalty and courage and he achieved a rank of Tribunus Militum, in charge of over 1000 men. He was martyred during the reign Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD in Lydda, Palestine, for refusing to persecute Christians, when Diocletion brought in edicts against what was then a reasonably small but vociferous sect. Including the burning of churches, the destruction of holy scriptures and the execution of Christians. George defended the Christians and their faith and was imprisoned, tortured and executed. There are various accounts of is martyrdom, some claiming it took seven years as God restored him to life three times. His fame was carried as far as Russia, with his head was carried to Rome. His emblem of the red cross on a white background was carried on the tabards and shields of crusader knights. It is also the flag of England and forms the red cross part of the Union Flag of Great Britain. St George is the patron saint of England, taking the role from St Edward the Confessor who is now often forgotten. His tomb attracted pilgrims, and his fame spread when Richard the Lionheart introduced his military cult to England during the crusades and the Battle of Acre, before this his cult appeared in Byzantium. John Cabot carried his emblem to Newfoundland and both Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake flew his standard. It was also carried by the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower.
Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legends (13th Century) speaks of him in Silene in Libya. Another 10th Century account places St George in the fictional area of Lasia, ruled by a tyrannical emperor called Silinus. The area had a lake, inhabited by a venomous dragon, local inhabitants would feed it sheep to keep it passive, and then when these failed to satisfy it, children were chosen at random. One day the lottery fell on the king’s daughter, the king offers half his kingdom if his daughter was spared. This is an idea which appears in other mythology – the king – unable to defeat a monster offers his daughter and riches to a hero. St George, the knight, happened to be passing and wounding the dragon with his lance (and with God’s blessing) then capturing the dragon with the princess’s girdle allowed it to be led by the noble lady to the city gates, where St George converted them to Christianity and duly slew the dragon.
In some accounts he was the son of an English Lord, Lord Albert of Coventry and his mother died in childbirth. The babe was stolen by a ‘wild-woman’ of the woods (possibly a witch or gypsy) but he eventually outwits her and becomes a knight. Of course after the slaying of the dragon and rescue of the princess he married the maiden, returned to England and lived happily ever after… Although as with many legends another version states he faces a second dragon, in Warwickshire, kills it but subsequently dies of its poison.
Of course this is a religious myth, and many would say not fantasy as such – the dragon represents evil, and those who slay them champions of Christianity. He is also believed to have protected horses from witchcraft – one should hang a flint with a hole over the stable door with verse depicting him vanquishing a hag. But there is more than religious allegory, he epitomised courtly and chivalrous values; he was a warrior, saviour of damsels in distress and vanquisher of monsters. And some would say religion uses elements we class as fantasy, and ideas which appear in religion appear in myth and folklore. The two are intertwined. The more magical elements of the myth probably appeared after the Reformation, with the overtly Christian inferences stripped out by the Protestants and the more romantic elements of the story take the fore.
His heart (allegedly) lies in Windsor and was a favoured relic of King Henry V, who invoked him at the siege of Agincourt (1415), where the English were victorious against the French, but later kings have claimed his protection and as the patron saint of England his influence is firmly entrenched. There are other local English myths – including one in an Essex village where a dragon (probably a crocodile escaped from the king’s menagerie) was killed by a local nobleman – one Sir George Marney. The Uffington White Horse, in Berkshire, England (an ancient white chalk horse cut into the landscape) has a dragon myth. There is a hill named Dragon Hill, is claimed by Thomas Hughes in his book The Scouring of the White Horse (1859) to have been the site of the slaying of the dragon by ‘King George’. The bare patch is supposed to be where the blood of the dragon spilled, nothing will grow. Hughes cites another region, Aller in Somerset, where a shepherd tells of a hill which saw the death of the dragon and the burial of its slayer. The horse at Uffington is itself curious being linked with Alfred the Great, (878 AD) Hengist the Anglo Saxon leader, Celtic (100BC) but in fact has been in existence since the Bronze Age – around 1000BCE. Brinsop in Herefordshire also claims ownership of St George – its parish church has a medieval carving of the deed being done. The dragon apparently residing in the local ‘Dragon’s Well’ and the next village being known as Wormsley – ‘worm’ or ‘wyrm’ being an alternate word for dragon.
Heroika: Dragon Eaters
This brings me to Heroika: Dragon Eaters. This anthology turns the tables. Our dragons are not the nice sort. They are the alpha predator, the scourge of land, water and sky, they are true monsters. Only the bravest, most desperate or foolhardy take them on and fewer life to tell the tale. Dragon Eaters came from an idea from fantasy author Janet Morris – who wanted a ‘snake eaters’ type of anthology. The best of the best fighting the worst of the worst you might say. What was born was seventeen diverse tales from ancient mythic to futuristic and steampunk. They share a theme, albeit a loose one, and all types of dragons are slayed, vanquished and devoured. I suppose you could say the winners eat the losers. As you’d expect it is filled with blood, scales, fire and magic, swords, airships, flying beasts and so very much more.
Do you have a favourite dragon story? If so feel free to comment on it.
Fantastical creatures have featured in mythology and storytelling since people first sat around the fire and told of great beasts and wicked monsters. They are at the core of our cultures, from great dragons, to hydra, to sea monsters, mermaids, fairies and pretty much everything you can think of and some you wish you hadn’t. Many were humanoid, some carrying more arms, legs or eyes and some less. Some weren’t – lizards, half birds, half lions, creatures which look they they are made up of left over bits of other animals. The unnatural zoology was vast.
Of course many still feature in modern fantasy – dragons, fairies/feyfolk, unicorns, shapechangers and more. Paranormal fiction is extremely popular – with the vampires/werecreatures etc as the heroes. But what of the lesser known creatures? The nightmare of our ancestors?
The ancient Greek heroes fought and slayed everything from Medusa, the snake-haired woman whose gaze was petrifying, to one eyed Cyclopes – the offspring of mighty Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa, (Homeric tradition) or second generation gods – the spawn of Gaea and Uranus (Hesiod). They were giants, builders and liked to snack on mortals (and demi-gods) who strayed into their path. Some were famed for working for the lame god Hephaestus, and some such as Polyphemus were shepherds. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphemus). Today I am going to focus on these creatures.
The Greek deities were a paranoid lot (with good reason for the most part) and the Cyclopes were imprisoned by Uranus who was afraid of their power. To be released again by the Titans and Chronos in order to defeat Uranus they were later imprisoned again as their power increased, only to be released by Zeus so they could help him overthrow the Titans. (Yes intrigue and double crossing was the staple diet of the Greek immortals.)
One eye had been traded in order that they may see into the future – but as such bargains often turn out – the small print was overlooked and all they could foresee was the day of their death.
Odysseus blinded and tricked Polyphemus, who had it must be admitted eaten several of the trickster’s friends – who in turn were trying to steal some of the giant’s provisions and had found their way into the cyclop’s den.
Getting the cyclops tipsy Odysseus thrust a burning, sharpened stake into the monster’s eye – then cried out his name was ‘No one’ or ‘Nobody’ (depending on the translation) so when the cyclops staggered outside crying ‘Nobody’ blinded him the other giants thought him mad.
Of course Odysseus being Odysseus couldn’t resist letting Polyphemus know who it really was once he was safely back at sea. Telling him it was ‘Odysseus, son of Laertes of Ithica who has blinded you’. This was not among Odysseus smarter plans as this particular cyclops was the son of Poseidon who was rather annoyed and send the great hero’s boat in a rather roundabout way home…
The story reappears in later myths – Virgil tells the story from the perspective of a seaman of Odysseus’ crew left behind (Aeneid) and Aeneas and his crew see the blinded giant and his companions and beat a hasty retreat.
Later mythological writers, including Ovid, speak of the love affair between Polyphemus and the sea-nymph Galataea – with a greater or lesser tragic ending (she loved another). And Wilhem Grimm collected tales and retelling of one-eyed giants from Serbia, German, Finnish, Romanian and Russian mythology.
In the Renaissance composers brought the tales to opera. Giovanni Bononcini, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Joseph Haydn and George Frideric Handel composed works around the story of Polyphemus, Galataea and Acis, her lover (whom Polyphemus kills). Artists and sculptors too have used the cyclops and his tale as a basis for their work. Interestingly too the Scottish Rite Freemasons have Polyphemus as a symbol for civilisation that harms itself using ill-directed blind force.
Origins – Othenio Abel in 1914 argues the origins maybe from prehistorical dwarf elephant skulls – with a big central hole for the trunk, which of course would be gone by the time the fossil was found.
Cyclopia – is an uncommon but real condition is a ‘rare form of holoprosencephaly and is a congenital disorder (birth defect) characterized by the failure of the embryonic prosencephalon to properly divide the orbits of the eye into two cavities’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclopia
Often the nose is missing or is non-functioning and appears ABOVE the single eye-socket. The foetuses usually abort or are still-born, however some living cyclopic animals have been recorded, although they rarely survive for long. Causes can include toxins such as cornlily or false hellebore Veratrum californicum – which resembles Hellebore, which is given as a natural remedy for vomiting, cramps and poor circulation. White Hellebore, which was cited by Hippocrates, also contains teratogens which can cause the deformity. Genetics too can cause the condition – the Sonic the Hedgehog gene regulator (yes really) can suppress a particular protein needed in eye development in early embryos and cause the mutation.
So misunderstood fossils or deformities could have created a myth, which in turn became the story of one-eyed giants.
Mutants: On the form, varieties and errors of the human body. (c) Armand Marie Leroi 2003
The Odyssey of Homer (various translations)